By Louise Kinross
But in the fall of that year Luke's life changed forever when he rode off a platform to jump a 25-foot gap and came up short. “I crashed hard, flew over the handlebars, landed head first, broke two vertebrae in my upper spine, and left my life as I knew it,” he says. He was able to talk his friend—who'd been filming his jump—through a 911 call and was airlifted to Vancouver General Hospital. After an eight-hour surgery, five weeks in intensive care and five months in rehab, “I was introduced to a world that's not well suited for a wheelchair user.”
Today, Luke's on leave from his job as a structural engineer to mastermind StopGap—a project that aims to dot Toronto's single-step storefronts with red, yellow, green and blue ramps.
“It's an effort to get the conversation started about barriers in communities that prevent people from accessing spaces,” he says. “The single-step storefront exists all across Canada so we thought why don't we paint simple plywood ramps in bright colours and offer them to businesses for free? We get volunteers to build the ramps and hardware stores donate the materials.”
Luke says the stepped storefronts are a relic from a time when streets weren't paved and customers used the step to knock the dirt and mud off their boots.
“The ramps aren't perfect, that's why we call it StopGap,” Luke says. “They provide a springboard to thinking about really great permanent solutions.”
StopGap has placed almost 400 ramps in Toronto and its how-to manual is sparking similar movements in other cities in Canada and the U.S.
Luke rates Toronto a 4 out of 10 for accessibility. Stockholm, on the other hand, is an 8 or 9. ”The Scandinavians are really progressive and think about everyone when they design stuff.” Vancouver is a 7.5.
Moving from a life filled with extreme outdoor sports to one where he had just enough movement in his arms to feed himself was tough, Luke says.
“I went from being a back-country skier and someone who loved climbing rock faces and ice climbing, to being someone who can't get into a restaurant. My world was now an inaccessible space.”
Luke recalls arriving at a Toronto concert venue he'd been assured was accessible to find 15 steps up. “The bouncer met me and said 'Okay, just hang out here for a second' and I figured he'd be back to show me the back entrance. But he came back with four of his bigger bouncer buddies and their idea of access was to lift me up those 15 steps. I'm wondering if I should put my life in the hands of these complete strangers or do I disappoint all of my friends and pull the cord on going to the show. I chose to get lifted up, but it was a situation that shouldn't have happened. I kept coming across situations like that and realized something needs to be done.”
StopGap began in 2011 when Luke enlisted friends to help build ramps on weekends. So far the group has targeted 12 Toronto neighbourhoods. “We knock on doors and talk to business owners, educating them about the need for a ramped storefront,” Luke says. “You'd be amazed that most people don't quite get it until we shine a light on the problem. Unless you've been touched by disability, it's not something you'd ever think of.”
Ontario's government has committed to making the province “barrier free” by 2025, but with 10 years to go, “we're not even halfway there yet,” Luke says. Municipal bylaws aren't helping. “If you want a permanent ramp you have to apply for a variance that would allow you to encroach on city property,” Luke says. “No mom and pop café can afford that.” Still, “the city is recognizing there's an issue,” he says, “and we've had meetings with bylaw enforcement and right-of-way committees.”
StopGap is organizing a silent auction May 29 and a crowd-funding campaign to support a summer tour that will bring ramps to 12 more communities across Ontario.
Since the province hasn't reached out to partner in any way, Luke hopes the project will appeal to private donors.
“It needs to be on people's radar that we're all going to need barrier-free amenities at some point in our lives,” he says.
Luke admits he never gave a moment of thought to accessibility before his accident. “In the early days it was a really tough mental battle coming to realize that this was a completely different way of life. I had heard stories about people walking out of rehab, but I knew that wasn't going to happen for me. For me, independence meant learning how to have others be a part of my daily routine—brushing my teeth, showering. I've got a stream of helpers that come and go and some are great and super helpful and others not so much.”
A painful part of his recovery was watching friends retreat when he couldn't return to his physically active lifestyle.
“I've grown apart from a group of buddies I considered my best friends. That was hard. I still have a hard time with it. When I go to bed at night I don't think of myself as someone with a disability. In my dreams I'm not disabled, I race my bike. But I don't live for the chance to be physically able again. That's not a useful way to go about life. There are many different ways to lead a fulfilling life and I feel I've been given a gift and a real opportunity to see a larger piece of the pie. I try to recognize difficult situations as an opportunity and embrace change.”