Julian Stein wants Toronto to be easier for people with disabilities to navigate. Says now is the time for big changes

Julian Stein has spent a lot of time being “the first”.

He was the first person with a visible disability to go to a YMCA camp; the first person to use a wheelchair on their high school track team; the first wheelchair user in his arts program at the university.

Stein was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that occurs when the spine and spinal cord do not form properly. You know the challenges that come from being first, but you also see it as an opportunity to drive change. “If I can get it to impact permanent change on something,” says Stein, “great.”

The 39-year-old Torontonian’s pioneering spirit continues as director of Access to, a nonprofit organization whose members evaluate the accessibility of Toronto’s public and private spaces and publishes in-depth reviews.

The list of locations includes restaurants, bars, concert halls, art galleries, and attractions. Planning to visit Bier Markt? The AccessTO review takes you beyond a simple symbol of accessibility to more detailed information such as table heights, transitions between different types of floors (carpet to tile, for example), door size and lighting. .

AccessTO was launched in 2013 by physical therapist Silvia Guido, who saw the barriers that people with physical disabilities face and wanted to offer vital information.

It was not always like this. “I went to a bar on Yonge Street,” Stein recalls. “I made sure the main entrance was accessible, but then I discovered that the bathroom was in the basement. I had to go to find another place that had an accessible bathroom and then come back. “

By chance, Stein discovered the organization in 2013 while searching online for accessibility information. Soon after, he began writing reviews for the website. When Guido needed someone to volunteer to take on a leadership role at AccessTO, Stein, with his professional experience in operations, was a perfect fit.

“I was also one of the few people involved at the time who had a visible disability,” he says. “It just made sense to have someone lead the group of volunteers who have that lived experience.”

AccessTO has not posted any new reviews since the pandemic. Restaurants have largely reopened for indoor dining, but Stein says volunteers visiting these places to provide reviews are potentially high risk. Since the pandemic continues, he doesn’t feel comfortable asking people to do that.

Instead, he has turned his attention to systemic change and, he says, there is an opportunity for that in a post-pandemic Toronto.

“I think the closed closings and restrictions have shown us that both restaurants and city bylaws can change quickly when there is a want and a need,” he says. “Restaurants did things to adapt, like building covered patios to stay open, but building a ramp or having an automatic gate opener has been a big challenge in the past. Why?”

Ensuring that these issues become a normal part of the conversation will also help break down the stigma that having a disability can bring, she adds. “The more we can normalize the image of people with a disability or a need for mobility, going out and socializing, the better.”

Meanwhile, Stein wants more attention from various levels of government. For example, the guide to the popular CafeTO program, which has generated crowded patios on sidewalks and streets, has a section to help restaurants meet accessibility requirements. But even though the guidelines are clear, Stein says he encountered ramps blocked by planters or umbrellas, demonstrating a lack of compliance.

Ensuring that businesses are accessible can also mean providing more funding to modernize bathrooms and entrances or removing the restrictions they face when trying to implement some of these changes. That the city so quickly approved the use of curb façade to extend courtyards shows what’s possible, he says.

“People talk about COVID-19 and want to get back to normal,” says Stein. “I don’t want to go back to normal, I want to go back to something better.”


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