Opinion: Access to historic Red Deer building falls short

The fact the former Central Intermediate School continues to grace Red Deer’s downtown core is a blessing worth celebrating. Too many historical gems, in this city and others, have fallen victim to the wrecker’s ball.

It’s just disappointing that the landmark, which now houses Red Deer’s new cultural services centre, isn’t a welcoming venue for every member of the community.

Those with mobility challenges have to go around the back of the building and try their luck with an intercom system that is supposed to connect with someone inside, who can electronically unlock a pair of doors.

There’s only room for one disabled parking spot, and even it’s not yet functioning, despite the much ballyhooed opening of the centre, which includes a public art gallery, along with a number of other amenities and programs with broad appeal.

The arrangement is hardly an embracive environment for the disabled. There’s no ramp adjacent to the grand stairs at the front of the building, which lead to, you guessed it, even more stairs once inside.

“Programs are offered at the centre daytime, evenings and weekends,” says the centre’s website.

“Classes are offered for all ages in the areas of music, theatre, drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture and art related summer camps.”

That’s admirable, but it’s worrying to imagine a disabled patron pushing the intercom button on a Sunday evening in winter, hoping that someone inside the warm interior stands poised to let them in.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” says 68-year-old Faye Hallett, who needs a hip replacement and has difficulty climbing stairs.

“I think it’s shameful. This is 2019. If I was in a wheelchair, I would be really upset.”

The city says the building’s heritage status limited accommodation for the disabled, but as Hallett was quick to point out, this is 2019. Shortcomings that may have been tolerated decades ago are no longer acceptable, particularly for a public gathering place renovated using taxpayers’ dollars.

“Including every citizen in society isn’t a ‘nice to have’ — it’s the hallmark of a great society,” says Rick Hansen, founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation, which works to reduce barriers that impede the disabled.

“Great societies become greater when everyone has equal access, is fully engaged and can realize their potential.”

One in seven Canadian adults currently lives with a mobility, vision, or hearing disability, says the foundation.

Within the next 20 years, the number of Canadians with disabilities is expected to grow to more than nine million — or one in five people.

There’s no doubt the 1940 school building’s design was an architectural challenge, but that was no excuse to shirk the public’s responsibility. The legislature in Edmonton is an old building too, but it’s readily accessed by the disabled.

We make all sorts of compromises with our historical legacy to ensure we’re treating people with appropriate consideration today. Recently, that’s included renaming structures and hiding away statues because of the association some of yesterday’s political figures have with treatment of our Indigenous people.

Surely, if we’re motivated to try to do the proper thing on those occasions, we can tinker with the access to an old building to permit everyone to use the front doors.

Some people, it seems, are determined to live in the past.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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