When considering whether or not a building is accessible to those with physical disabilities, there are several things to consider.

The Starbucks at 40 Wellington St. West is a prime example of a wonderful business with questionable accessibility. 

When the building was completed and Starbucks first opened, I was overjoyed to have a coffee shop in such a prominent visual location. Besides physical challenges, I am legally blind, and if I can’t see it from the bus stop, I’m not going to find it.

The huge STARBUCKS sign across the side of the building that faced the road, along with the round logo that jutted out from the top, made it extremely hard to miss, and easy to find if I somehow got disoriented. The fact that these signs lit up at night made it even better.

Upon entering the building from the side by the road, I noticed a slight elevation, but since I do not use a wheelchair, this problem was solved by simply using the open door as a support. Once I had my hand on the bar, I could use it the way I’d use a normal railing.

This method worked fine for a while, until the owners of the building decided to put a step in there. I remember the day I got off the bus, enthusiastically ran up to the door, and almost tripped, falling into a pile of sand where the pavement used to be.

Example of railing at Guelph bus hub.

I extended my arm and managed to fall into the window, where I noticed an itty-bitty sign saying that we should use the other door, a perfectly accessible entrance in back. This entrance is flat, and ideal for a wheelchair to enter, as long as they enter through the parking lot.

What about the physically challenged people who do not drive?

Because of my navigational difficulties, having the only accessible entrance in back adds an extra five minutes onto my travel time. This does not seem that bad, but consider the fact that I have to time it so I can get to the bus stop just as the bus is coming, because there is no place to sit. That’s another story, for another column.

Also, there is the visual issue of having to navigate around corners, instead of just stepping out, turning right, and crossing the street. Ideally both entrances should be accessible. 

Large step ahead of Starbucks entrance.

I entered the cafe, and expressed my concerns to the manager who promptly stuck a huge pylon in the sand, and put a much bigger sign on the door. I am extremely pleased with how the Starbucks staff will do their best to solve an accessibility issue.

What trips them up is when a problem is beyond their control, such as if it’s the responsibility of the landlord, or corporate. I imagine there are times when Starbucks employees must feel caught between their customers, their landlords, and corporate.

My husband managed a Starbucks in Sedona, Arizona, and could write a book about the ups and downs of working in a franchise.

A few weeks later the barriers were removed, the sign was gone, and unfortunately so was my easy access. This is where things got really “interesting.” 

Open Access’s Christensen in front of Starbucks.

The front door was surrounded by a small stoop, open on three sides, and at least ten inches high, with no railing. North American building code standard is six to seven inches high. The stairs in my apartment building are seven inches.

This step is not only hard to climb up, but it can be dangerous to climb down. Because of the way the double doors open, and because of the lack of a railing or post of any kind, I have to look over my shoulder to make sure no one is coming, close the door behind me, and turn left, so that I can use the large window for support, as I’m climbing down that step.

There is a planter there, which is a nice support in the event that I fall forward, but as of today, there is a branch that extends towards the door, that gets in my way when i need to do this. Also during winter months, the management shovels snow into that little nook, making my entry and exit impossible.

To enter I need to approach the wall, turn left, and step up, as I grab the door with my right hand, and swing around the nearest door, as I open it. 

Another hazard when entering and exiting this way are the people who INSIST on opening the door for me. As a person with a disability (personally I prefer to call myself challenged), these well meaning people can get in my way, especcially there.

I need to open my own doors so I can use them for support. Also, being legally blind, if I don’t open my own doors, how am I supposed to know where they are? 

Naturally people are going to assume that I’m going to step up from the front. This is very difficult for some to do without a railing. I walk in a rather laboured way, and use a white support cane, so my challenges are far from invisible.

Not everyone with the same disability is going to have the same problems. We need to think before literally “jumping” to conclusions. 

When entering from the side, the open door will be a closed door in my face, blocking my access. Then exiting, the person holding the door will block my ability to turn left, and grab that wall. Then there are those who see an open door, and tailgate.

People, I need to close the door behind me in order to get to the window, in order to step off. Pushing past me or expecting me to hold the door for you is going to impede my ability to exit safely.

Offers of help will be declined, because I am not going to hold onto an unstable human who does not know how I move when there is a perfectly good inanimate window, right next to me. I know you all mean well, but I need to consider my own safety before considering your desire to do a “good deed.” I will not ask permission to navigate independently. 

I visited this Starbucks with a friend last week, and we brainstormed about how to solve the problem of the high stoop. Our best idea was to put a small railing right in the centre, extending half way back, so it would be reachable from the door, but would not block each individual door’s ability to open.

Ideally we’d like to see that stoop gone and a ramp put in its place, but for those of us with mobility issues who do not use wheelchairs, a railing would be a good place to start. 

Again, this is a wonderful business, one of the friendliest and safest places in Guelph. The chairs are comfortable, the friendly staff all know the names of their regular customers, and their drinks are out of this world! They will also make the extra effort if a customer can’t see something, or needs help carrying something.

I also appreciate that any help given is done so after I have asked, and there are no assumptions about my needs. With better access to the building from the outside, it’s awesomeness will know no bounds.