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Scary Bear Soundtrack play at Pressed, one of the venues Binkowski recommends. Photo by Ming Wu from Apt613's flickr pool.

Chris Binkowski on accessibility in Ottawa’s music scene

By Lee Pepper on October 9, 2015

Apt613 spoke with Chris Binkowski, a painter, busker, and, founder of Accessibility for Humanity, an advocate for making businesses and other spaces in Ottawa more accessible. Recently, Accessibility For Humanity has been working with Stopgap Ottawa to provide businesses with free wooden portable ramps. He generously shared his experiences and thoughts on places and events in Ottawa that do accessibility right, and where we as a city can improve.

Apt613: Did you grow up in Ottawa?

I was born in Ottawa and have lived here all my life. Living mainly in the core, like the Glebe, Sandy Hill, Centretown and Alta Vista. Living for three years in Centretown were some of my best times enjoying city life.

What are some of your favourite places in Ottawa, or places where you have spent a lot of time?

I like green spaces like Strathcona Park and the bike path along the Rideau River and near the War Museum. I also like the character of Chinatown and Hintonburg. They’re great to walk through or hang around in. Raw Sugar and Pressed are two indoor spaces that I enjoy being in. Black Squirrel Books across from the Mayfair is also really nice. The National Gallery is great.

Can you tell me about your mobility device?

Outdoors and in public I use a power wheelchair to get around. It has a ventilator mounted to the back of it which makes it a bit longer and more cumbersome for maneuvering in tight spaces. It is also super heavy so it is difficult to lift the chair into places.

I can get on the OC Transpo bus with it. That’s my preferred public transit option. Ideally though I like to drive myself to places in my power wheelchair. Centretown was the most convenient home base for this. Now that I live back in the Alta Vista suburbs I am institutionalized by living far away from anything relevant socially and culturally.

At home, I generally use a manual wheelchair with my ventilator situated nearby on a stand. The advantage to the manual wheelchair is that I have a comfortable tray for using my computer. Unfortunately, someone else has to push me around in this wheelchair.

Tusks playing at Raw Sugar in 2011. Photo by Ming Wu from Apt613's flickr pool.

Tusks playing at Raw Sugar in 2011. Photo by Ming Wu from Apt613’s flickr pool.

What features or qualities would a space or event need for would you, personally, to be able to physically access it and for it to be somewhere you feel comfortable and able to enjoy yourself?

First and foremost the space or event would have to be wheelchair accessible. This generally means it would have a ramp, elevator or simply be on the ground floor with no steps or stairs used as the sole entry method.


Places that I enjoy being in generally have a lot of space. I don’t enjoy places that are almost completely taken up by furniture or people. Those feel claustrophobic. In those situations I position myself on the edges of the area and avoid moving around until the event is over with.

Noise is a big issue. My voice is extremely low and difficult to hear. If I’m going to an event where I want to communicate with people I often have to seek out a quiet zone, like perhaps a secondary room or hallway to talk. I also use my iPhone to assist with communication by writing
in the note pad. It’s slow but sometimes it’s the only way for people to understand me.

Last year, I was going regularly to Beats & Boards at Raw Sugar Cafe. I always enjoyed the end of the night when the music was turned down or shut off completely as things were winding down. It was a freeing moment where I could actually have more flowing conversation with people and felt like I was able to present the true me when I could express myself easier.

In your opinion and experience, are there things that you’d like to see other attendees at a show or event do to make events more comfortable for attendees using mobility aids?

At the last show I went to the crowd unfortunately wasn’t generous in letting me see. Sometimes people notice that a person is standing right in front of me and they’ll ask the person to move. Sometimes I’ll ask a person to move and they’ll ignore the request. Attendees with awareness of others and who are inclusive make things more comfortable. I always try to find a spot where I’m not in people’s way.

I know I’m being very broad but I just want to see nice people at shows. People that notice other people, notice mobility aids, make space, ask questions, are approachable, helpful, etc.

Can you name some places or events in Ottawa that have done a good job with accessibility, from your perspective?

Often the biggest factor in a place or event doing a good job with accessibility comes down to attentive staff. Pressed Cafe has been very accommodating when it comes to being accessible. Raw Sugar’s staff have also been amazing. To the point where a few would help me with taking off my winter clothing if I came by on my own. The organizers of Beats & Boards would also help out with my clothing or with a drink. I cherish the independence I experienced being able to go to an event like that. This inclusiveness allowed me to start making friends in the community and translated to being able to go to a local concert on my own (at Maverick’s or Mugshots) and being able to ask someone who knew me in the community for help. Otherwise going to a show requires having a friend or caregiver go with me. These extra logistics often make it difficult for me to go to a show.

Shanghai Restaurant, The Red Apron and The Mayfair Theatre are other places that I really enjoy that make an effort to get me into their place.

Shawn Scallen (Spectrasonic) as a concert promoter has always been very supportive for accessibility concerns and making sure I was safe at a show or even with getting home on my own.

More recently, people involved with Debaser and Arboretum Festival have been great with accessibility issues.

Events put on connected to Venus Envy at Raw Sugar have been some of the most inclusive / safe spaces I’ve ever experienced.

On a corporate scale, Bluesfest and CityFolk put a strong emphasis on accessibility. I volunteer for both festivals on the accessibility teams. It’s great that these festivals have a visible volunteer team dedicated to helping patrons with disabilities. Their leadership on accessibility has inspired many other festivals like the Tulip Festival and Grassroots Festival to be proactive with accessibility.

Would you be able to say more about what promoters or venue owners have done or could do to make it easier or more pleasant for you to attend events?

A few times at Mavericks or Ritual, promoters and security were good at making sure I had a safe space close to the front but off to the side of the stage. I was safe from anyone rowdy and had a sight line to see the performers.

If you’re comfortable with this, and you don’t have to name names, are there places that do a bad job with accessibility or that have a long way to go?

That’s a hard question mainly because inaccessibility can be such an ambiguous experience. When a place has stairs it’s not something that can be fixed at the very moment or by the people I am dealing with. In many cases it’s very difficult or impossible to make a building accessible. For instance, I’ll never go to a place like House of Targ because of it being in a basement with a very steep staircase. Realistically the owners would have to relocate to an accessible building. That’s not something I could ask them to do. That’s a venue though that would be willing to carry me in if I had a lighter chair.

The frustrating experiences are when people aren’t very helpful. I was trying to get into a pho restaurant a few months ago to join some friends. There was one step blocking my way in. With a bit of elevation like a door mat over some flattened cardboard boxes I could have bumped by way over the step. Unfortunately the staff didn’t feel like checking if they had empty boxes around and offered to lift the chair in. My whole set up with me in it weighs around 500 lbs so it isn’t a real option to lift it in. I missed out on hanging out with my friends.

The other accessibility barrier comes from big venues like the NAC, Canadian Tire Centre, etc. Almost all of the time I need to have a care person accompany me to events. Smaller promoters are often understanding of letting an attendant in for free but these large venues don’t. For the NAC they do offer the lowest ticket price yet I am seated in the orchestra section but it still means I have to purchase two tickets to go. Two lowest priced tickets still equal more than a single high priced ticket. Canadian Tire Centre doesn’t recognize attendants at all. This is a financial accessibility barrier. Not only do disabled people have a limited choice in where they can sit in a venue but they have to pay twice in order to have someone to help them with care accompany them.

The Bluesfest and Folkfest do allow an attendant to accompany a disabled patron for free.

Could you also tell me more about your volunteer work with Bluesfest and Folkfest and what they’ve done to become more accessible?

One of the biggest ways Bluesfest and Folkfest have been progressive with accessibility is
having a team of volunteers dedicated to accessibility. I’ve been volunteering with Bluesfest’s A-Team since 2010 and with Folkfest’s A-Crew since 2012. The teams are the same concept for both festivals with many volunteers taking part on both teams. We are there to help with any accessibility concerns at the festival. We help the public, volunteers, staff and performers. We have a tent on the festival grounds. People come to us for help. It might be as simple as providing information regarding location of accessible bathrooms, accessible seating or providing help navigating through the crowd to the accessible drop off / pick up spot. It’s great that we have a visible presence at the festival through the tent and an accessibility logo on our volunteer shirts.

Another big way these two festivals work to be accessible is that they have reserved seating areas for disabled patrons. These are often in fenced off areas or on raised platforms. This allows disabled patrons to have good sight lines and be in a less crowded/chaotic space. We have volunteers on hand at the accessible platforms and other accessible seating areas. Our team leaders work with the festival organizers/staff to make sure physical accessibility concerns like ramps, platforms, bathrooms are set up and maintained. Our volunteers also assess and provide feedback regarding accessibility before, during and after the festival. Our team leaders ( who are volunteers) work with the festival on a year round basis to be in the loop on festival planning and provide accessibility advocacy.

The festivals are very supportive of disabled people being volunteers whether with the accessibility team or other volunteer jobs. Bluesfest and Folkfest also allow disabled patrons and volunteers to have one attendant accompany them for free. All of these factors score these two festivals with high marks for accessibility progressiveness.

Editor’s Note: Easters Seals Canada runs a program called Access 2 Entertainment which seeks to offer more opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in recreational activities with an attendant, without added financial burden. The card can be used at select movie theatres and attractions all over Ontario (CityFolk and Bluesfest are a part of this program). The person with a disability pays the full fee while their guest’s ticket is free. There is a $20 admin fee to process the application, but the card is valid for five years. For more info and to apply, click here.