Music is important in our household for lots of good-sounding reasons, but, in particular, because my partner is the host of Folk Roots Radio, a very popular folk music radio show.
As a result, we attend a number of outdoor music festivals each summer and love to attend indoor music performances as well. Accessibility is also very important to us – for obvious reasons, and, we have a family agreement about not attending events unless we can both access the venue. Meaning – it must be wheelchair accessible.
Unfortunately, we have missed a great many shows because of a lack of access; I don’t enjoy being the reason for disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that I am not the cause, but I am the reason. Many, dare I say, most venues are not wheelchair accessible (yet).
AODA – is it working?
I’d like to say that the AODA (Accessibly for Ontario Disability Act) is making a difference, but overall I continue to see accessibility overlooked, not considered, or out and out avoided. Building permit approval is often not being enforced. The act was meant to ensure new buildings and large renovations included access, but many permits slip through unless challenged. Larger cities are slowly doing more but generally, smaller towns are lagging way behind.
Just to be clear, I am not a complainer but I am an advocate who speaks up when I feel I will be heard. I also offer an online training course for music festivals to help educate their staff and volunteers about accessible customer service.
I also love to spread the word when I encounter a location that has made the effort to walk the talk as far as access is concerned. Which brings me to the town of Highgate ON.
This small town, with a population of 400, created a not-for-profit organization and since 2010 they have been transforming a former church into a community hub for the arts, culture, and music. The former United Church is now named the Mary Webb Centre, in honour of Mary Webb Gosnell, an early settler of Highgate (1832), who inspired the start of church services.
The Centre offers a concert music series showcasing many well-known performers. My partner and I went to Highgate for the first time this past weekend to see Steve Poltz, who was, as always, magnificent.
Photo courtesy of Michael Brideweser
What struck me about the Mary Webb Centre though was its level and quality of accessibility. This renovation project community did not short-change, or cut corners to achieve full accessibility.
It was abundantly clear to me that inclusion for all patrons was a priority. Everything from the entrance, automatic door buttons, washrooms on both levels(!), to the elevator lift, was stellar. The design was tasteful and allowed me to be fully independent. I did not need to wait for assistance, or retrieve a key, to use their elevator.
I cannot express how welcomed I felt as a result. I found myself to be giddy and tearful, at the same time.
It Takes A Village
Renovating a heritage building to blend its historical charm with modern universal access is no small feat. It requires architects that respect and know how to achieve access. It is also costly and when the Mary Webb Centre’s grants fell short, the people of Highgate and the supporters of the centre stepped in to get the job done.
Photo from Chatham Voice: Oct. 4, 2017
In total transparency, I was hesitant about traveling over an hour to a venue that I did not know. I was prepared to be disappointed but willing to explore.
We started the evening by dining in Cedar Springs ON at Comfort and Soul, a small cafe that offers scrumptious southern cookin’. If you enjoy smoked food, hearty meals, and amazing homemade deserts, then you will enjoy the warmth and charm of this diner and its owners. It alone is worth the drive.
It would suffice to say that my evening was a complete success.
I was delightfully surprised to discover a musical gem of small-town access.
Thank you, Sandi Kearney (board chair), the entire Mary Webb Centre board members, volunteers, and citizens of Highgate.
Recreational activities are what makes for a full and enriching life and inclusion for all is what makes a community a community.
Big praise for Highgate – the small town that got accessibility right!