Blyth's Sawchuk begins work as provincial committee chair
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Blyth’s Julie Sawchuk has begun her work as the chair of the Design of Public Spaces Standards Development Committee for the provincial government, overseeing a team of over a dozen like-minded individuals committed to making Ontario more accessible.
Work on the review officially began earlier this month with the committee’s first virtual meeting. Sawchuk, however, had been researching and trying to learn as much as she could in the months leading up to meetings being held. Her work schedule began late last year when she was named the chair of the committee.
And while the committee is beginning its work of making Ontario’s public spaces more accessible for all, they will soon have to put things on hold in order to let the provincial election play out.
The committee currently consists of 13 members, although Sawchuk says there are one or two more prospective members who may join later in the process. While she had a hand in the selection process, much of the membership came down to the government’s Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility.
Sawchuk says there are members from Huron County, including herself and someone from Goderich, as well as people from Ottawa, Toronto, St. Catharines, North Bay, Guelph and more. The committee represents a good mix of urban and rural representatives, which is a good thing, Sawchuk says, because for too long the accessibility focus has been on urban centres and bigger cities. She said that representing rural Ontario and the unique accessibility challenges presented in communities like those in Huron County are absolutely crucial to the work of the committee.
She also said that everyone on the committee is committed to making the world more accessible, as they either have accessibility challenges themselves or work for agencies that aid those who do. That firsthand knowledge of what’s needed in Ontario for everyone to feel comfortable, she said, is important.
For the first meeting, Sawchuk said she worked to help everyone get to know each other. As a bit of an ice-breaker exercise, she asked each member to state their ultimate dream of accessibility in the world.
One committee member who uses a power wheelchair, Sawchuk said, relayed a story about playing hide-and-seek with his six-year-old niece at the playground. She said the story elicited good-natured chuckles from those on the committee, but that stories like that are exactly why the work of the committee is important. If a playground is designed with accessibility in mind, everyone can use a playground and play hide-and-seek with their young loved ones without it being challenging.
That story also brought up one of the most crucial aspects of the review, and accessible design in general, she said, which is that if accessibility is factored in at the time of construction, it can often be done easily and seamlessly. It’s when older buildings or public spaces need to be retrofitted for accessibility that things get really complicated and, frankly, expensive.
She said that an accessible design of public spaces also allows people to be spontaneous. Right now, Sawchuk said, she has to plan out every aspect of a trip that’s as simple as coming into Blyth to do some shopping. She needs to know where she can park, if she’ll be able to get out of her car and onto the sidewalk and where washrooms are located (accessible ones she can use) and how far away they are from her. Accessible design throughout the province alleviates a lot of those pressures and allows people to worry less about the world around them and focus on living their lives.
While the provincial election may put the committee’s work on pause in the near future, Sawchuk said the members are working towards getting started ahead of their forced shutdown. That way, she said, they will be able to hopefully pick up right where they left off when their work is legally allowed to resume.
The committee hopes to flesh out a work plan before the election, Sawchuk said, and do some other groundwork in order to position them well for later this year.
As for public spaces, she said the committee hopes to bring in site-specific experts to educate committee members on spaces like parking lots, playgrounds and more to help them with their research.
While the election shutdown will result in a slight delay, Sawchuk says the committee still has a year-and-a-half to do its work, so there is time. She said there needs to be public consultation and feedback from the committee before recommendations can be made.
At the end of the process, Sawchuk says, it’s really just about the committee providing educated recommendations to the government. Whether those changes are implemented is completely up to the provincial government of the day, she says.
She said it’s up to the committee to communicate the importance of the recommendations and why the province would be made better if they were implemented.
While it’s still very early in the process, Sawchuk said having the first meeting was “amazing” and she’s excited and optimistic about what the committee can accomplish in the next 18 months.