He conquers the world one step at a time

Luke Anderson has always loved a physical challenge. As a kid growing up in Stouffville, Ontario, the natural athlete spent every spare minute biking, running or climbing. Later, it was organized sports: “baseball, lacrosse—you name it, I did it.” But mountain biking was his ultimate passion, and after graduating with a degree in civil engineering from Waterloo University, he headed for the hills, moving to Rossland, British Columbia.

It was there, while mountain biking with a friend in the fall of 2002, that physical challenge took on a whole new meaning. “I bit off more than I could chew and came up short on a big gap jump,” says Luke. The result was a high level (C4-5) spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. “In a split second, my life went from being this incredibly active, physically able 24-year-old guy to someone who is very dependent on others and my wheelchair to get around. And in that split second—and in the ensuing months as I got used to this new way of life—I was introduced to a world not well suited to a person who uses a wheelchair.”

Today, Luke finds it a challenge simply to navigate the built environment, as he is confronted daily with barriers to accessibility that people without mobility issues rarely pause to consider.

The job interview

Two years after his devastating injury, Luke turned his mind to gainful employment. “As I started to get more comfortable with my situation, I sent out resumés, looking for work as a structural engineer. And I got an interview at an engineering firm in downtown Toronto.

Anderson-0006“The morning of the interview, I did what everyone else does,” recalls Luke. “I got dressed up and I arrived early.” But for an applicant who uses a mobility aid, that wasn’t enough. Three steps separated street level—where Luke sat in his chair—and the entrance to the building, the elevators and his potential employer. For Luke, those three steps might as well have been a mountain back in Rossland.

“It was a cold, wet November day, and I sat there, in the rain, wondering how the heck I was going to make it to my interview.” Fortunately, someone coming out of the building told Luke about a back entrance. “It was a loading dock. I had to get in touch with the building manager, who went into the garage and moved all kinds of garbage to haul out these big, heavy, temporary ramps used for the snow blower.”

After more than an hour of working through the logistics of just finding a way into the building, Luke arrived at the offices of Blackwell Engineering, soaking wet, freezing cold and late for his interview. Fortunately, “I must have said something right,” says Luke, who can joke about the experience now, “because I got the job!”

A temporary fix

For both Luke and his new employer, the challenge of that initial interview was just the tip of the accessibility iceberg. “Now we had to come up with a way to get me into the building so I could come to work every day.”

The solution was to purchase a deployable ramp, which could be unfolded to bridge the gap between street level and the main doors. It sounds serviceable, but the ramp had to be deployed—then immediately folded and stored—each morning when Luke arrived and again each evening when he left.

Usually, the job fell to Luke’s good friend and co-worker, Michael Hopkins. “We grumbled and complained about the ridiculousness of the situation, and at the same time we noticed how many other people were struggling: people who weren’t using wheelchairs but had mobility issues of their own.” Delivery people lugging heavy packages would jump at the chance to use the ramp, says Luke, as would parents pushing strollers.

Last year, the building was retrofitted with a permanent ramp and an automatic door open. But “for more than five years, I had to arrange to have someone meet me outside every morning when I got to work and go down with me every evening when I left. There was no spontaneity or independence,” says Luke. “You can imagine how annoying this was, especially when Michael would get busy with other things or lose track of time or just forgot. I was often left downstairs, and this fuelled my frustration.”

And this was Luke’s place of employment, where people were aware of his needs and had jury-rigged a way to accommodate them. There were countless other buildings in the city that were inaccessible to Luke and anyone else who uses a wheelchair. “Every visit to a building requires research. You have to check ahead,” says Luke. “And I get it. We’ve got a lot of venues in this city that are old and were designed at a time when people who used wheelchairs didn’t really participate a lot in their communities because they weren’t seen as people who could. But we’ve come a long way, and it’s time to change things.”

Michael and Luke would often discuss the widespread nature of the accessibility issue. Their frustration finally reached a tipping point in 2011. “We had to figure out a way to get the conversation started: to let people see how big the problem is. That’s when The Community Ramp Project was born,” says Luke.

The StopGap solution

They were inspired by the success of The Good Bike Project, which was started by two OCAD University employees who painted bikes in bright colours and left them locked up around the city to increase awareness about cycle-friendly communities. Luke and Michael launched their own campaign, StopGap (stopgap.ca), which is run by volunteers who are inspired to create awareness about barriers in our built environment.

“Those brightly coloured bikes caused a stir and got people talking,” says Luke. “We latched onto the concept and decided to go for the low-hanging fruit. We’d provide businesses that had single-step doorways with a free ramp painted in bright colours, and with our website highly visible so people would go there to learn more.”

The first community ramp rolled out in The Junction in Toronto’s west end in the fall of 2011. There are now 130 ramps in six communities: The Junction, Kensington Market and Roncesvalles (all in Toronto); Stouffville and Orillia, Ontario; and Cranbrook, British Columbia. To this point, local hardware stores have donated the materials, and volunteers have built and painted the temporary ramps, which are designed by Luke.

Made from lightweight plywood with a non-slip finish, the ramps can be deployed whenever there is a need. (The installation of permanent ramps requires a street variance for encroachment onto city property, as well as a building permit and more complicated, expensive design-to-code construction, all of which puts it financially out of reach for “mom-and-pop” businesses.) The ramps are custom constructed to fit the step and are painted in red, yellow, green or blue—“obnoxiously bright” to generate conversation. StopGap provides participating businesses with a sign to put in the shop window, announcing that a ramp is available, and Luke is trying to encourage business owners to purchase an inexpensive call bell system to make accessibility virtually seamless.

The businesses sign a waiver accepting liability for the use of the ramp, and StopGap makes sure owners understand the potential for risk and deploy the ramps safely. “There are some businesses that do shy away from the risks,” says Luke, “and some business owners just don’t get it, which is unfortunate because everyone benefits from a ramped entrance.”

The early adopters—those who responded positively to the survey StopGap distributed in their community and chose to receive a free ramp—are seeing an increase in their consumer base, “and a really interesting thing is happening,” says Luke. “Customers of businesses that are not part of The Community Ramp Project—in particular, customers pushing strollers—are demanding that the businesses they frequent have ramps installed.”

The growth spurt

This demand for accessibility has led to the first offshoot of The Community Ramp Project: Ramps on Demand. Businesses that are being pressured by their customers to have a temporary ramp available can now apply to Ramps on Demand to have a custom ramp built at cost (usually between $100 and $300) by contractors that are aligned with StopGap.

And the StopGap organization, which has applied for charitable status, just keeps on growing. Early in June, it inked a partnership with Dixon Hall, a multi-service agency offering a “hand up” rather than “hand out” approach to skills training for people who are considered at risk and/or economically marginalized. The Dixon Hall Mill Centre works in partnership with George Brown College, local high schools and other non-profit community agencies to provide carpentry and home renovation training to more than 50 paid clients each year, and it has taken on The Community Ramp Project as an educational vehicle. “It’s an incredible partnership that will streamline our ability to get more ramps out there,” says Luke, whose ultimate goal “in the ideal world” would be to have a ramp in every Toronto doorway. “Once the Mill Centre locks down its funding for the year, likely sometime in June, we will begin to canvas businesses.”

The partnership is a direct result of a meeting at Toronto City Hall last fall between the StopGap board and Councillor Adam Vaughan, chair of the Disabilities Issues Committee. StopGap received the endorsement of the committee, and Councillor Vaughn passed along a few contacts, Dixon Hall among them. “We met with the coordinators over the winter and solidified the partnership this spring,” says Luke.

To celebrate, Dixon Hall held its annual fundraiser, Rebuilding Lives 2013: Bridging the Gap on May 29—and StopGap and its supporters were out in full force. “Twelve ramps were given paint jobs by professional artists and auctioned off,” says Luke, as were prints of the ramps. “It was neat to see how people reacted to a ramp as a piece of art.” The final figures are not yet available, but Luke says close to $40,000 was raised, with every penny going to the Mill Centre for ramp materials and client wages.

Building higher, reaching further

Part of the Ramps on Request Program, says Luke, is coming up with solutions for multi-step storefronts. “I’m an engineer and I like solving problems. It’s kind of fun to figure out a temporary fix.” It’s not easy, though, and the answer is usually some type of modular structure, “like Lego blocks fitting together.” The challenge is to create a ramp that is easily deployed and easily stored. “I’ve come up with some concepts and we hope to have our first multi-step ramp constructed by the end of July. We already have a few requests.”

Luke and the entire StopGap team are thrilled with the success of The Community Ramp Project. “Our brightly coloured ramps have generated a lot of interest. They’re working. They’re speaking for themselves. And people get it. They often say to us, ‘It’s so simple—why didn’t somebody think of it before?’ ”

To truly understand a need, however, you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—or, in this case, wheel a mile in someone else’s chair. Luke encountered an obstacle and he conquered it, just as he did on his mountain bike. Now he would like to tour his accessibility solution from coast to coast in the spirit of Canadian awareness heroes Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. “I see a real opportunity to take this thing across the country,” says Luke, who is working on logistics and sponsorship for a cross-country tour. “I’d like to see a ramp project in every community in Canada.”

Read More: Luke Anderson takes his wheelchair lesson to the classroom

Another wonderful side effect of StopGap’s Ramp Project is the creation of community. “With the involvement of schools, for example, we can create awareness among children,” says Luke, an ambassador with the Rick Hansen Institute and an independent presenter.

One of his post-injury passions is speaking at elementary schools. “I share my story with the kids, and introduce the community ramps as a way to overcome challenges in life and to effect social change.”

What is “really incredible,” he says, is that many kids have never encountered a person who uses a wheelchair. “At first they’re timid, even afraid. But as soon as I start my presentation—with some jokes and activities that help them understand what it’s like to be dependent on other people—their apprehension disappears. At the end of my talk they come up to me with curiosity. It’s incredible.

“I show them how physical barriers in our built environment prevent many of us from enjoying some of the amazing buildings and spaces that our cities and communities have to offer, but how a simple ramp can make life easier for everyone. I wrap up by asking them whether they would like to take on their own ramp project in their community, and there are a few schools that have accepted the challenge.”

Kids often ask him if he regrets making the jump that led to his accident, says Luke, who now skis, sails and has recently reconnected with the cycling community as a coach mechanic. “I tell them if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here meeting them, telling them my story and opening up their minds to a different way of life that is just as fulfilling and good and really pretty amazing.”

One of the important lessons Luke teaches children is that accepting change can introduce us to new and exciting things, and even make us better people. That’s the lesson readers take away from The Ramp Man, a book written by school principal Thelma Sambrook and Luke’s sister, Grade 1 teacher Logan Anderson, and illustrated by the Grade 6 students at Summit Heights Public School in Toronto. The book, which was inspired by a live presentation Luke gave at the school, takes readers through Luke’s life: his devastating injury, his post-spinal cord injury navigation of a world that is not well suited to people who use a wheelchair, and his use of the powerful tools of optimism, perseverance and hope as he tackles—and overcomes—the barriers he encounters.

“They did an amazing job,” says Luke, who encourages schoolkids to read The Ramp Man before he visits, by way of gentle introduction and to get their minds working on some questions and issues beforehand. “The book is one more way of furthering awareness. Ultimately it is these kids I am speaking to who are going to be tasked with removing the barriers to our built environment.

“We have a population that is aging, and the Boomer generation will need sound, excellent solutions to a lot of accessibility problems. But above and beyond that, disability affects us all as we get older. We are all TABs—Temporarily Able-Bodied. One day every one of us will need barrier-free accommodations. Our ramps are not a permanent or perfect solution. They are a stopgap solution: a way to get the conversation started and the wheels turning.”

This is all in preparation for what is to come, says Luke: the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA), which is now law and will be fully implemented and enforceable by 2025. “I would like Toronto to recognize the benefits of inclusively designed cities and communities, and to create legislation of our own ahead of the AODA Built Environment Standard, something we can show off to the world when we welcome the Pan American and Parapan American Games in 2015.”

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