City of Ottawa Advisory Committees Exist for Citizen Engagement (So Use Them!)

I spent a disturbing couple of hours at City Hall in the Champlain Room on Friday afternoon. The occasion was a Special Meeting called by the Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC).

The mandate of the Accessibility Advisory Committee is defined by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act; briefly it is to advise Council and staff to ensure that persons with disabilities have the same level of access to municipal services and programs as do those without disabilities.

When it was determined that the city would attempt to reduce expenditures on public transit by some $20 million dollars requiring significant route changes and route eliminations, given the above mandate, would one of your first steps not be to arrange for consultation with the AAC?

I attended the Special Meeting on April 8 for “selfish” reasons. I wanted to address proposed cuts to Route 16 which would effectively strand a dozen LiveWorkPlay members (people with intellectual disabilities) who live in the Britannia area by eliminating their Monday-Saturday evening transportation and gutting Sundays altogether.

I happen to have spent about ten years of my childhood in that neighbourhood, riding what was then the 51 and is now the 16 after a long stint as the 18. The 51 was my “lifeline out of Britannia.” It’s a great neighbourhood but it’s a long way from there to just about anywhere. You can’t get out on foot without eventually climbing a steep hill up to Richmond or Carling. This is important when understanding that dots on a map don’t tell the whole story of the pedestrian experience. It’s more than 2km to Lincoln Fields Station from some parts of Britannia. That’s no simple “inconvenience” for seniors and people with disabilities.

After my presentation and some excellent questions from the ACC representatives that helped make my case to city staff (and to a Mayor Watson staff member who was in attendance as an observer) I soon forgot about the issue that had brought me there, and found myself thinking about a much bigger issue. I began to understand that this Special Meeting and the presence of a city staff member was the only input given (because none was sought) from the AAC. They were not consulted at any stage of the somewhat euphemistically titled Network Optimization process.

These are not busybodies anxious to fill seats in a meeting room. It’s a talented group of people with broad civic, business, and volunteer experience. And remember, the existence of this committee is mandated by the AODA. The majority of AAC members also have disabilities. This gives them a particular experience of our community and that expertise as individuals and as a group that cannot be rivalled by any city staff member no matter their professional training. When seeking to understand the impact of changes to city programs and services, the AAC would be a logical and wise place to begin, because they represent a segment of the population that is almost always going to be impacted most profoundly. That is certainly true when it comes to public transit.

Adding insult to injury, the city has an Accessible Transit Specialist on staff, but apparently she too was excluded from this process. The explanation offered was that her work is in “customer service” which was not part of the scope of the Network Optimization considerations. If that doesn’t give you a bit of a cold chill, you just aren’t getting it. So let me feed you one more bit of information.

Network Optimization recommendations were based on walking times (if we cancel route X, how much further will rider Y have to walk) with the “average pedestrian” in mind. There is no way to blend consideration of people who use wheelchairs into the “average pedestrian walking speed.” For some people with mental illness and/or intellectual disabilities, their situation might mean that need to live with a bus stop on their doorstep, and they will have located their homes accordingly. If the bus route changes and that bus stop is gone, the walking times are irrelevant: they’ve lost their transportation. Period. Can’t go to work. Can’t go to church. Can’t go shopping. Can’t live.

These are the types of issues the AAC could have and should have been helping with. At the Special Meeting they rhymed off with ease a number of neighbourhood hubs where there are special populations that will be grimly impacted by proposed route changes.

As the City of Ottawa website says about advisory committees “The City can benefit greatly from your expertise, enthusiasm and civic pride.” We engage volunteers on advisory committees because they have experience, skills, and expertise that can help staff and council develop more efficient and effective processes, and come up with solutions that better serve all citizens.

I can tell you without a bit of hesitation that these AAC volunteers are a strong resource that offers more than any transit specialist or consultant could possibly bring to the table when it comes to building an accessible transit system. Why was this resource wasted? Will anything be learned by their being left out of the process in 2011?

I was a part of the AAC back in the 90s when it was known as the Disability Issues Advisory Committee. I recall at the time the main complaint of those volunteers was that they did not feel that anything they were doing mattered. I sense that same frustration from the 2011 AAC.

I’m the co-leader of an organization in the non-profit sector. Any misuse of volunteer resources at LiveWorkPlay is considered one of our most serious failures. We are always ready to make changes so the volunteer experience is purposeful and enjoyable. I think the City of Ottawa needs an attitude adjustment about committee volunteers such as those who serve on the AAC. Failure to take advantage of what they have to offer is not only disrespectful, it means we as citizens and taxpayers are missing out on opportunities to be a stronger community.

About Keenan Wellar

I'm a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of social change charitable organization, which helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was named Ottawa's Best Non-Profit of 2019 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal "Best Ottawa Business Awards " With Julie Kingstone, I am co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, dedicated to supporting a culture of excellence for non-profit, private sector, government organizations, collaborations, and partnerships. I am a regular guest (monthly) of the News 1310 Power Lunch radio show, and I write a monthly NPQ North column for Nonprofit Quarterly. I also have alter-egos that support the Ottawa RedBlacks and Ottawa Fury. Find me on Twitter @socialkeenan @liveworkplay @wellstoneleader @redblacksfanabove @furyfanabove. I'm all over Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn too. Also spotted outdoors from time to time, mainly in the Glebe area.
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