Peter Athanasopoulos apologized to six mayoral candidates: the wheelchair-accessible cab he ordered had arrived 30 minutes late.
His difficulties reaching a debate on disability issues in Toronto, a city whose subway stations won’t be guaranteed accessible until 2024, underscored Athanasopoulos’s argument transportation is a “huge issue” for people like him.
“I would have taken the subway but the gap was just way too big and it wouldn’t be safe for me,” he added during a debate Tuesday, June 29 in which contenders for mayor clashed over whether to keep group homes apart and how best to move disability issues forward at City Hall.
The city’s Disability Issues Committee, an advisory group that meets four times a year, might not serve that purpose, several candidates suggested at the forum hosted by non-profit groups at the University of Toronto’s Innis College.
“What’s there now is a way to appease the community,” said Giorgio Mammoliti, who suggested a dedicated committee of council could make more substantial changes happen.
If the disability committee is only a “feel good” group, “let’s blow it up,” George Smitherman suggested, but said he’d give the committee more power and make senior staff responsible for achieving its goals.
Smitherman, a former MPP, said the city needs to adopt “more exacting targets” for hiring a diverse workforce, including people with disabilities.
Sarah Thomson, a publisher, said her administration will use remote or work-from-home programs and new technologies to open more municipal jobs to the disabled.
Rob Ford, an Etobicoke councillor and business owner, said financial incentives would encourage companies to hire workers with disabilities. Ford, who often names city spending he considers excessive, said more should be spent on making buildings accessible to the disabled.
“You should spend a lot of money helping these people out.”
Ford also said he sees no need to keep the city’s required 250-metre separation between group homes, adding he doesn’t believe in spreading them out. “If there can be four in a row, why not?”
Joe Pantalone, also a city councillor, said the distance requirements for group homes ensure they are distributed fairly. “If you really believe in spreading the wealth around, if you will, then you got to make sure every neighbourhood has its share of everything,” he said.
“Distance requirements achieve that.”
But Rocco Rossi, a former Liberal Party of Canada president, suggested enforcing such “Byzantine” rules for group homes takes options away from people with disabilities and said he was appalled by Pantalone’s view on spreading them out.
“Where does that end? Does that say every fourth house can be Italian, every third house can be Greek?” he asked.
From the audience, John Rae, vice president of Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, said right-wing candidates like to cut programs and contract them out to the private sector, an approach he warned against. “We in the disabled community know trickle-down economics rarely if ever trickles down to us.”
But later, Rae, though still undecided, said he had been most impressed by the performance of Thomson, the candidate whom Pantalone argued “wants to contract out everything.”
Rae said he was impressed with Thomson’s “no nonsense” support for his suggestion the city should stop purchasing all items that cannot be used by everyone who wants to work for the city.
Meanwhile, Athanasopoulos, part of an earlier event in which Rossi and Smitherman experienced the challenges of using a wheelchair for a day, was wearing a Smitherman button. He said he has seen Smitherman’s work with community organizations, and believes he will solve issues for people with disabilities.