As patio season ramps up, CaféTO’s accessibility problem comes under fire

Patios have started springing up along the city’s bustling streets since the May long weekend, marking the beginning of the third season of CaféTO, Toronto’s popular pandemic-inspired outdoor dining program.

But disability advocate Luke Anderson has noticed a marked difference this year: many of the facilities aren’t accessible.

“It makes me sad,” said Anderson, who is executive director of the StopGap Foundation which provides one-step ramps to businesses. “Patio season is coveted and it is our human right as Canadians to be able to access space on an equal basis.”

For the last two years the city of Toronto has provided asphalt ramps from the sidewalk to the road for curb lane patios. But restaurants and bars complained that the ramps were often put in the wrong location and the asphalt would crumble during rainy days.

“Asphalt ramps that were installed by the city in previous years did not provide the level of placement and operational flexibility requested by restaurant operators and (Business Improvement Areas),” a spokesperson with the city’s transportation services said in a written statement.

So this summer it’s up to restaurant operators to install ramps and ensure the patios conform to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) standards. Those guidelines include keeping a minimum of one meter to enter the cafe area, not blocking existing barrier-free access or sidewalk clearance for those with mobility needs and ensuring railings or planters are cane detectable.

The city said 803 curb lane cafes have been installed so far, with more to come.

A Toronto Star survey of downtown patios this week that included the Queen Street West, College Street and Kensington Market areas found that only 14 out of 50 were accessible with either a ramp or sidewalk level patio and mobile chairs. Another 50 without ramps also only had orange pylons and concrete blocks on the road without patio furniture, and were likely still being set up.

On a tour of Augusta Avenue cafes this week with a Star reporter, Anderson pointed out some additional considerations to make CaféTO set-ups accessible.

For maneuverability, he said 42 inches must be clear from the end of the ramp for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. He also explained that if most of the furniture on the patio is secured to the floor and therefore not movable, it creates difficulties for those who need mobility devices.

Anderson pointed to patios that had either mobile furniture with no ramps or patios level with the sidewalk having fixed furniture — but none of the patios had both ramps and mobile furniture.

“We’re not here to shame anyone,” Anderson said. “People just don’t understand the importance of making it accessible, or aren’t aware. So, it’s about making them aware.”

Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow — a navigation system that shows which businesses and public spaces are accessible — said street patios can be a welcome alternative for wheelchair users, but if business owners aren’t mindful new barriers can be created.

“Decorative plants, fencing — if the patio takes up the entire sidewalk, those create more barriers when trying to move around in the city,” she said.

The city not only provided a guidebook on AODA standards for patio design, it also offers up to $2,500 in grant money for accessibility improvements like ramps, handrails, and other devices.

Anderson said to install a CaféTO curb ramp from his foundation ranges from $320 to $470, plus delivery. So far, the foundation has only received a dozen requests.

John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) said it’s the sole responsibility of the business to ensure the infrastructure follows AODA standards.

“It’s on them to make the space accessible,” he said.

The $2,500 grant from the city makes the accessibility accommodations more affordable for businesses to install, Kiru added.

Cindy Le, a manager at Mandy’s — a restaurant on Ossington Avenue — said making an accessible patio for customers was simple. The contractor who built the wooden patio walls also made the ramp, Le said.

“Cost wasn’t the factor — it was about being inclusive and it was an easy way to do it,” she said. The restaurant owners also bought mobile furniture for the patio.

“Cost might be something other places are taking into account. It’s different for everyone,” she said.

If people notice patios don’t adhere to the requirements they can report them to 311. The city will inspect the CaféTO patio and if it does not have an accessible entrance with a temporary ramp or a platform that meets the requirements, enforcement officers will require one be installed, according to a city spokesperson.

“Repeat complaints may result in the removal of cafe permissions,” the spokesperson added. To date, no cafe permissions have been revoked.

Anderson said he’s made more than a dozen complaints to 311.

AccessNow’s Ziv said businesses that complain about the cost of installing accessible infrastructure are missing out on upwards of $13 trillion a year in disposable income that the disability market carries.

“Accessibility is often still looked at as an expensive burden as opposed to an economic incentive,” she said.

Though the city requires that restaurant operators comply with AODA standards, proof of that should be required before the permit is even approved, Anderson said.

“It doesn’t make sense that the city would green light something that goes against their guidelines,” he said. “The patio needs to validate that they have the ramp already and the proper furniture.”

Anderson said the lack of accessible patios seems regressive, compared to the last two years when all patios at least had ramps.

“It sends a message that someone with mobility needs is not welcome,” he said. “It feels like I’m not allowed here and that to me is hurtful.”


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