The wants and needs of people in wheelchairs are pretty much the same as anyone else, Omar Lachheb notes.
“They want to go to restaurants, they want to have fun, they want to go with their friends and access stores and bars,” said the 37-year-old who has been in a wheelchair since the age of 16.
The problem is that at the majority of businesses, bars and restaurants in Montreal, easy access is often hampered by one step a few centimetres high, making it either impossible to enter, or requiring the aid of a store employee or a friend and feeling like a burden, or an outsider.
Which is why Lachheb is kick-starting a non-profit organization dubbed J’accède (I access) that will donate lightweight one-step ramps to businesses in Montreal. Four businesses are already on board, including the iconic St-Viateur Bagel in the Plateau and Gabytech computer services store on Parc Ave. Both have steps into their stores roughly 15 centimetres high.
Lachheb has partnered with Le Boulot vers, an organization that helps young people who have left school find a career path. Students build the ramps, paint them in red, blue, yellow or green, and affix a metal plate to the front so access is smooth. Total cost for the ramp is $32 ($12 for the wood, $20 for the metal plate) and one hour’s labour valued at $45, which is donated. With handles on the sides, the ramps can be moved easily into and out of the store, circumventing bylaws on blocking sidewalk access. They are also handy for parents with baby strollers and deliverymen with trolleys.
Lachheb became a quadriplegic after diving into a public swimming pool in his native Morocco and damaging the spinal cord in his neck. After a year in hospital and intensive rehabilitation, he was able to use a manual wheelchair. He came to Montreal to study in 2004 and never left, finding a job with the Royal Bank of Canada counselling employees. His friends in Morocco had advised against the move, saying he would have to put chains on his wheelchair tires to handle Canadian winters.
Compared to Morocco, Lachheb found access to public institutions to study and work and to get around town were very advanced in Montreal. Easy access to most stores and restaurants, and laws requiring accessibility, however, are not.
Lachheb was inspired by the work of Luke Anderson in Toronto, who was paralyzed after a mountain-biking accident at the age of 24. Anderson started the Stopgap Foundation four years ago, building ramps constructed with donated materials and volunteer labour for single-step storefronts. The ramps are designed to provided access, and also broaden the dialogue about universal accessibility, or lack thereof. Started four years ago, the foundation’s ramps are at more than 500 locations across the city.
In Montreal, Lachheb is hoping to sign up 50 businesses to get started, and figure out a unit price when they’re built en masse, then look to corporations to help with funding. Boulot vers is helping with his marketing campaign and project management while he sets up as a non-profit organization.
He is toying with the slogan: “J’accède, donc je suis.”
I access, therefore I am.
Lachheb figures getting businesses to work as partners in the campaign is a more effective way of bringing them on board and spreading the message than spending years complaining to human rights tribunals.
“My main hope is to allow people like me to become ‘whole citizens,’ to be able to access businesses, to be a real client. To really have the sense that universal access is something you can see in real life, and not just a wish.
“My wish is to make Montreal, and even Quebec, an inclusive city, not just in public places, but also at private businesses.”