Of the 113 businesses in Fernie’s downtown core, 48 are not accessible to physically disabled persons. This includes individuals who are elderly or wheelchair bound.
Twenty-one-year-old Grace Brulotte was born in Fernie with a rare condition known as Arthrogryposis. This condition has caused her to be wheelchair-bound since the age of four, as the condition stiffens her joints, giving them only a few degrees of flexibility. It also decreases muscle tone and removes muscle memory. She describes the wheelchair accessibility in Fernie like ‘living in the 60s’.
Despite being born and raised in the mountain town, she has yet to experience many of the things that people do when first arriving.
“I have never seen the inside of city hall,” said Brulotte. “I’ve heard that it’s really pretty but I wouldn’t know.”
“She (Brulotte) is an original Fernieite and she was born here,” said her caretaker, Scott Courtemanche. “So she should have all the same advantages that every other kid growing up here has had, but she hasn’t.”
Brulotte strives to experience life as fully, and as independently as she can.
“When I can’t get into a store, the rejection that I feel is hard to describe… It’s almost like a very subtle form of discrimination that most people just don’t acknowledge because you have to be able to experience it in order to know it,” said Brulotte.
Despite her physical limitations, Brulotte is an avid sit-skier. She was recently sponsored by Elevation Showcase, but could not enter the building. However, the small barrier which prevented her from entering was solved with the creation of a simple wooden ramp which the store now keeps behind their door when not in use.
“Most of the stores downtown; that would be the solution. A really easy wooden ramp which could be pulled out,” she said.
Brulotte recently had a friend visit from the United States, who is also wheelchair-bound. She couldn’t wait to show him many of the iconic spots around town, including La Grande Fromage as well as Big Bang Bagels. However, his aid had to haul him over the steps in his manual chair. This would not be possible in a motorized chair which can weight upwards of 500 pounds on their own. Brulotte said her friend was blown away by the lack of accessibility in Fernie.
Courtemanche also believes a lack of accessibility exists, and says it affects many groups of people. He said that Fernie has an aging population, and believes they are being forgotten about and ignored.
According to Patrick Sorfleet, Manager of Planning with the City of Fernie, barrier-free design is mandatory for all new buildings under the B.C. Building Code. The difference in the downtown core, is when you have pre-existing buildings. It is standard practice in B.C. Building Code, that if an owner builds a house today, and the building code changes in 10 years, they are not required to change their home. Only when an occupancy is changing, is a business required to upgrade to the current code (eg. retail shop to restaurant). Because the B.C. Building Code is a provincially regulated system, it is not something the City can regulate or go above. However, a business can take the initiative to upgrade to a barrier-free entrance of their own free will. Every case is specific, and the City encourages any business interested in looking into this matter to contact the City of Fernie.
Brulotte believes there are many misconceptions surrounding the issue of accessibility.
“People have said to me, ‘well, we don’t see a lot of disabled people around Fernie, you might be one of the only ones.’ And I say yeah, there’s a reason you don’t see people with disabilities downtown.”
According to a 2013 Disability Consultation Report by the Government of British Columbia: Moving Together Toward an Accessibile B.C., about 546,760 people in B.C. identify as having a disability which represents 14. 8 per cent of British Columbians over 15 years of age.
“If things were to change, you would see a lot more of us coming out and being more active in the community.”
She believes an important step in solving this is first of all, recognizing that accessibility is an issue in town, as well as recognizing that it wouldn’t take much to fix it.
Brulotte has remained in Fernie despite these limitations because of her love for the town, its people, and her deep family roots.
The young local was the muscle behind the creation of the Fernie Adaptive Skiing program, of which there are 21 members.
The Fernie Trails Alliance is looking to create an adaptive trail system in the future, which Brulotte believes will attract a whole new demographic of tourists to Fernie. More information on this will be posted as this project progresses.