HUNTSVILLE – Two Huntsville community members are helping create a pair of accessibility guides for use across the province.
Deb Kirwin, chair of the town’s accessibility advisory committee, and Denise Corry, the town’s corporate services director, were recruited by the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association to sit on a committee geared toward developing an accessibility guide for public sector use and another for private sector use.
“The association received funding from a provincial fund, which is set up for interested parties who can put together some sort of educational material or guidelines that further the enabling of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act throughout the province,” said Kirwin.
The association is a non-profit organization representing municipal, social and community services staff focused on enhancing its members’ capacity to plan, manage and deliver quality human services to best meet the needs of their communities.
The province awarded it funding under the Ontario Enabling Change Partnership program. Funds will go toward producing a guide on how to make public meetings accessible and inclusive, said Kirwin.
The association put together a committee of 12 people from across the province who will work together to create the guides.
That two of the members are from Huntsville speaks volumes for Huntsville’s accessibility standards, noted Kirwin.
“It’s another example of how the rest of the province perceives Huntsville and recognizes we are a changing community and we are working toward being an inclusive community,” she said.
Kirwin said municipalities often hold public meetings to gather feedback from community members, but sometimes those meetings do not accommodate people in wheelchairs, those who are hard of hearing or those who are blind, as examples.
Sometimes meeting locations are not accessible, assisted listening devices are not available or printed material does not accommodate those who cannot read it.
“If you think about it being a public forum, you want to include your whole community – that’s what inclusiveness is all about,” said Kirwin.
She commented that she tends to promote Huntsville as an inclusive community rather than an accessible community because with any mention of accessibility people often default to thoughts of wheelchairs.
“But an inclusive community means the involvement of everybody – people in wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who are deaf – all of those who otherwise might not be able to participate and have their voice heard,” she said.
And the public sector isn’t the only one hosting meetings.
“Private businesses don’t often have public forums, but they certainly have lots of meetings and they often have conferences,” said Kirwin. “They will be able to use the guide for accessible large scale meetings.”
Accommodating people with disabilities at meetings is another step municipalities and businesses can take toward becoming inclusive, said Kirwin.
And in many ways, she said, Huntsville is outpacing the pack.
“The reason the association asked Denise and I to come on board is because Huntsville has been recognized by the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario as being one of the leaders in the province in accessibility issues,” she said.
Kirwin credited town council and staff for supporting the accessibility advisory committee’s initiatives, such as reaching out to the Huntsville business community to promote the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Huntsville’s work in accessibility landed on the province’s radar when the municipality co-hosted the Ontario ParaSport Winter Games in 2006.
And Kirwin has been speaking in public forums and panels across the province since the creation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
“I got to speak about what Huntsville has done and from that we got some exposure. There were a lot of government officials and people from other accessibility advisory committees,” she said.
Officials from the accessibility directorate also attended the 2012 Ontario ParaSport Winter Games in Huntsville.
Huntsville’s accessibility celebrity, she said, is a result of public education, awareness and exposure.
The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association committee on public forums meets once a month either in Toronto or by teleconference.
It expects to complete the accessible public forum guides by January 2013.