By: Bill Potrecz
The Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games hope to set a trend by making accessibility a priority.
Niagara’s committee pitched four initiatives —legacy, sustainability, Indigenous inclusivity and accessibility — in their presentation to host the Canada Games.
“We really are treading new water with the 2022 Games because we are saying accessibility needs to be a priority,” Niagara 2022 Board member Karen Natho said. “I was quite happy to help and also quite pleased they had identified accessibility as one of their four initiatives.”
Natho, a native of Quebec with deep ties to Niagara, has a long and impressive background in the area of accessibility.
She is a former employee at the Niagara Children’s Centre, where she oversaw the recreational therapy department and was also the former executive director and founder of the Brock Niagara Penguins, the main para sport club in Niagara offering nine para sports. She also founded the Niagara Accessible Sport Commission.
“I really did have my finger on the pulse on what was going on in all of Niagara from Fort Erie to Grimsby in regard to para sports,” said Natho, who now resides in British Columbia.
Natho also knows first hand what it is like to participate in the Games after representing Quebec in 1993 in Kamloops, B.C. in field hockey.
“I already knew so much about the Games and how they could impact not only the community, but the youth across Canada,” she said. “It was a really big piece of who I am today and what the Canada Games had given me. I strived to make the team for three years and it was a coming together of the province in celebration in a national format.”
Natho pushed hard for Niagara 2022 to set a new standard in accessibility.
“At the previous games in Red Deer, accessibility was within the medical area. For our Games, accessibility for the first time, is its own functional area with every venue having a volunteer who is knowledgeable in accessibility requirements,” she said.
Niagara 2022 will hold events for athletes with either physical or intellectual disabilities in athletics, swimming and sailing. By holding events for able-bodied athletes, as well as athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities within the same competition, the Canada Games have distinguished themselves from any other event of its kind on the planet.
“The Canada Summer Games are the only multi-sport event in the world that has Special Olympics, para sports as well as able-bodied athletes competing at the same time at the same venue,” Natho added. “There are no other Games that do that. It’s unique and such a beautiful model of inclusion that works.”
Each province and territory has an allocated number of spots for athletes with disabilities.
“The important thing is we need to make sure all of our venues are accessible for all athletes,” Natho added. “Not just physical accessibility. I’m talking about the format of alternative ways to give information, transportation, and the social welcoming we want our community to embrace, and to make sure athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities have every opportunity to go to every other event to cheer on their team but also participate in all the social events that will be happening.”
Natho said accessibility doesn’t stop there, however.
“The next piece is we recognize [that] the officials, the spectators, the families, and the Niagara community all have accessibility needs,” she said. “We are thinking about the grandfather who is coming to cheer on their granddaughter and he might not be able to access Henley if he wants to go see rowing. We need to be thinking about everyone that requires accommodations coming to Niagara to participate in all aspects of the Games.”
Specific plans for each venue are crucial.
“A lot of the venues are going to require site modifications, ramps, signage, seating to name a few. We are having discussions if they are going to be temporary or can we work with the different municipalities or sites to put permanent changes in, strengthening the legacy of the Games and making these venues more AODA (Accessibility Ontario Disability Act) compliant in the long run,” Natho said. “We’re putting that wide angle of accessibility and working with the Niagara Region to make sure all of the sport and non-sport venues are accessible, and everything we put out, website design, print and video material is compliant to the AODA."
Natho is working with Games accessibility chair Jane Arkell, a Grimsby native, who also has a formidable background working with people with disabilities.
“We’ve done lots of pre-planning,” said Arkell, executive director for the Active Living Alliance for Canadians Living with a Disability. “We’ve put together a committee and chosen people to be advisors at each venue and at each of the functional areas, that would be anything like food and beverage, transportation, ceremonies. We’ve gathered the troops, we probably have 30-35 people who bring expertise.”
Arkell said training staff is a work in progress.
“There are things we still have to do. People don’t know what they don’t know so we have to teach them what they don’t know,” she said. “If people haven’t had experience running inclusive environments, they don’t know. Our job is to talk to each one of them.”
Natho sits on the legacy committee, which is chaired by Michelle O’Keefe, another Niagara 2022 Board member who also serves as Niagara College’s Associate Director of Athletics and Recreation.
“Afterwards, when everybody leaves, [we want to ensure] Niagara is happy with what we have invested in the Games, and it truly is a better place for people with disabilities to live, learn and play in.”
Arkell feels Niagara 2022 will set a new standard in accessibility.
“I’m really looking forward to the Games,” she said. “This is the first Games where the whole area of inclusivity has been on the agenda in a big way.
“I’ve got the bar set really, really high for this set of Games but what I’m also really excited about is being part of the legacy in terms of passing [this] on to future Games. So, everything we are doing we will be giving to Charlottetown and the Games after that and the Games after that.”
This report was filed by BP Sports Niagara, which is owned and operated by Bernie Puchalski and Bill Potrecz.