About six weeks ago, I had a wee rant - well, it wasn't that wee, actually. As rents go, it was a pretty good one. I’d arrived at my local grocery store to find it significantly altered in the name of theft prevention, alterations which erected a number of barriers to accessibility. There was a gate consisting of two bars, the previous two accessible checkout lanes looked like they had been reduced to one, the new self checkout area was hopelessly crowded with people and there was a chain across the only empty checkout lane. Basically, I couldn't get into the store.
Every time I went to my local Metro after that, I felt unwelcome. I thought about it for while and then I decided that posting this rant was not enough. I wrote a letter, enclosed a copy of my post and sent it to the VP of Operations in Ontario, asking if Metro didn't want my business anymore. Shortly after that, I got a call from another VP named Peter who is responsible for this particular store.
Peter was concerned. Very concerned. We had a long talk about legislative requirements, the reality of accessibility, the high number of people with disabilities in this neighbourhood (most of whom shop at Metro), theft prevention, human rights and optics that encourage shoppers to return. And then Peter committed to making a number of changes, namely the following:
- The bars on the gate would be put down during the day and back up again at 9 PM.
- The clerk responsible for the self checkout area would be instructed to keep a sharp eye out for customers with mobility issues, leaping to assist them with the gate as soon as they entered the store.
- The two accessible checkout lanes - there are still two, the second one wasn’t marked - would be clearly marked and one of them would be staffed at all times.
- The pinpads for debit cards would be placed at an accessible height in the two accessible lanes.
Peter asked for a bit of time to implement the changes, after which he would meet me at the store to get a better idea of what it's like to be a customer with a disability. That meeting took place last week and we were joined by Chris, the Manager of the store.
And guess what? The changes have been made with only a minimum of wobbliness. The accessible lanes are now marked, I have used the pinpads myself a number of times – yay! Independence! - the bars on the gate has mostly been down during the day, although there have been a few hiccups. We discussed it and Chris made a commitment to adding disengaging the bars on the gate to the 7 AM shift. We also talked about how although the width of the gate met Ontario Building Code standards for accessibility - the OBC does not talk specifically about such gates, but acceptable width to allow passage of wheelchairs in general - it was quite narrow for bigger chairs and scooters, so Peter said they would widen it. We did a walkabout in the store, discussed displays that create obstructions in the aisles - which were moved right away - and while were at it, we talked about other accessibility issues, such as produce being too high to reach easily when you're in a wheelchair. It turns out that produce displays will soon be lowered for aesthetic reasons, which will work well for accessibility, as well. Since then, Chris and I have had a discussion about modifications to some of the accommodations that were implemented, making them even better. As for the gate… it’s still there. It’d be better if it wasn’t, but in balancing theft prevention and accessibility, I think the compromise is serviceable.
And I am very impressed. The quickness of the response by Peter, his openness to discussing this and willingness to make changes speak well for Metro’s commitment to serve all their customers. Through our discussions, Peter also made it clear that accessibility will be a factor in the future and I recommended they include consulting people with different disabilities in store design and theft prevention strategies.
We also discussed the legislative requirements in the Ontario Building Code falling short of anything that is meaningfully accessible and this is the bigger thing in this. Because the changes Metro made to that store were within the standards for accessibility set out by the OBC. It is well known in the barrier-free field that the OBC’s section on accessible design is woefully inadequate and at minimum 10 years out of date. It takes a while to do consultations and to write the thing and by the time it's published, life has moved on and that means new technology and mobility aids. I don't know the specifics of the latest OBC, but back in the days where I worked in the field - which wasn’t that long ago - to deem a building accessible, it basically needed a ramp, an automatic door opener on the front door and accessible washrooms. There was no provisions for what is called a barrier-free path of access - i.e., once you're inside the building, can you actually use it. It sells businesses short. If the OBC lets you down, leaving you as a business owner with the belief that you have made your business accessible to all your customers and you end up doing something that essentially violates the Ontario Human Rights Code, how are you supposed to know that?
Should businesses be more aware of accessibility? Absolutely. We have an aging population, a big hump of baby boomers moving up to the decrepit stage and it makes sense to incorporate barrier free design in your business. It's called universal access because if the building is accessible to people with disabilities, it's pretty much accessible to all, including people carrying boxes, parents with strollers, etc. But we're back to how are you supposed to know. Your primary source of advice is the OBC and it’s inadequate.
I believe that Metro will now look beyond the OBC, shifting paradigm to one of barrier-free paths within their stores and will take a look at incorporating consultation with people with disabilities, as well as disability training for their staff. Okay, so maybe not quite that far quite yet, but they've started down the road and I have hopes they’ll get there. And that is enough to keep me as a customer, enhance my loyalty and prompt me to praise them in public.
This was also a very encouraging experience from an advocacy point of view. Proof that if you speak up, it is possible to facilitate change. There are no guarantees that it will always work in as positive a way as my experience with Metro, but you never know, it just might.