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Vancouver mayor playing 'disingenuous' accessibility politics, says critic

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (right) and Park Board Commissioner Jaspreet Virdi hold a news conference on March 4, 2024. Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (right) and Park Board Commissioner Jaspreet Virdi hold a news conference on March 4, 2024.

When Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and Park Board Commissioner Jaspreet Virdi announced an "emergency motion" benefiting people with disabilities this week, not everyone was impressed by the city's efforts.

What Gabrielle Peters saw was politicians from the ruling ABC party taking credit for one inclusivity measure that effectively already exists – and taking credit for a separate proposal, developed independently from the party with input from the disability community, that is going before city council next week.

“I found it really disingenuous,” said Peters, a disabled community organizer. "This whole thing has been reshaped as if Ken Sim and ABC are leaders in accessibility, when they're the ones who screwed up this winter, and they continue to screw up."

At his news conference with Sim on Monday, where the men stood behind a podium that read “All aboard for an accessible Vancouver,” Virdi said he’ll be advocating for the popular Stanley Park Railway to be included in the national Access 2 Pass program, which ensures that support workers for people with disabilities ride free.

Some observers were quick to note that, though the train is not technically part of the Access 2 Pass program, the park board already had an accessibility policy that allowed attendants free admission.

Peters said she would be “very surprised” if Virdi and Sim didn’t know that was the case, and that there’s no question parents of children with disabilities, generally speaking, are familiar with these accommodations, which made her question who the ABC news conference was truly trying to impress.

“The general public doesn’t know,” she said. “The people who know it’s not new are the same people who were disrespected by (the reopening of the train). They just keep building on the disrespect.”

When the city announced the return of the Stanley Park Railway in November – following a series of closures first related to COVID-19, then mechanical issues – many families were shocked and disappointed to learn the accessible train car would not be repaired in time for the holiday season, meaning young people in wheelchairs were excluded.

Peters believes ABC was caught off guard by the ensuing blowback – Sim excitedly proclaimed, “It’s back, baby!” during the initial announcement – and that the party has been trying to bolster its image as inclusivity advocates since.

Monday’s news conference was partly to celebrate that the accessible car would be back for the upcoming Easter Train event.

But there was also a familiar-sounding promise in Virdi’s emergency park board motion – a proposal for “reducing or eliminating” ticket costs for disabled attendees for the rest of 2024.

Last month, the Vancouver city planning commission unanimously approved a motion calling for individuals excluded from the train in November, December and January to be “compensated via free tickets.”

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry, the liaison for the VCPC, is bringing a modified version of the motion to city council next Wednesday. He said the hope is for officials to properly acknowledge and address the blunder.

“Accessibility with this train was an afterthought,” Fry said. “And I think it was quite insulting and thoughtless, the celebratory nature that went with the reopening of the train, when it was, in fact, denying access to people who need mobility devices to attend.”

Peters – who is on the commission, but spoke to CTV News as a private citizen expressing her personal opinions – pushed for that particular measure, and was stunned to see ABC seemingly trying to “get ahead” of the proposal.

A more important aspect of the motion, however, and one that advocates truly hope to see ABC adopt with open arms, is a commitment never to erode the level of accessibility that currently exists in the city – a measure that would not have allowed the train to reopen while excluding certain children.

It would require either maintaining or improving accessibility features whenever undergoing “maintenance, construction, renovation, update, or other ... alteration” of any “built environment, space, programs, events, attractions, services, or communications.”

“Inaccessibility should be understood as a reflection of structural ableism,” the motion reads. “Removing existing accessibility should be understood as a violation of the human rights of people with disabilities.”

Peters said this requirement – which would also apply to any organization that accepts city funding, or operates on city property – would greatly build on Vancouver’s existing accessibility strategy.

And going forward, she urged officials to spend more time in actual consultation with disabled people and groups before pushing forward with announcements and measures.

Fry agreed, and told CTV News he hopes the handling of the Stanley Park Railway can be a “learning experience” for all local politicians.

“We can collectively strive to do better,” he said. “Not just ABC, but all of us.” 

Sim has not responded to a request for comment from CTV News. Virdi submitted a written statement that did not address the similarities between his emergency motion and the VCPC motion, but said he was previously unaware that attendants could already ride the Stanley Park Railway for free.

"As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I was surprised to learn that attendants could ride for free - highlighting a gap in awareness within the accessibility community," Virdi wrote. "The implementation of (Access 2 Pass) designation will be instrumental in boosting awareness of these policies."

He also wrote that he was "happy to see the number of groups that are advocating for people with accessible needs." Top Stories

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