This is the fourth blog post in our accessibility series and in this conversation, we share the perspectives of someone in a mobility scooter and a caregiver. Read the previous post here.
Dorinda, Executive Director of pointA, met Michelle Hopgood in 2013 when they worked in the same office. Today, Michelle is the Founder of Hopgood Creative, a Toronto-based information design firm that uses graphic design to break down complex information. Her partner is Ammar Nasir, a landscape architect specializing in international projects. They met while living in the same residence when they were both at university, and married in 2018.
Hopgood has facioscapulohumeral (FSH) muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disorder that weakens her upper body muscles, making it difficult to push doors open or lift things. “Something that you would find really light, it could be 5 pounds, would feel like 15 pounds to me.” As a result, Hopgood experiences more fatigue than the average person because she needs to exert more effort to do the same action. This is why she has Legend, her service dog, who helps her pick up items, push accessibility buttons to open doors, and provides a level of safety for when Hopgood travels around the city.
Muscular dystrophy affects 50,000 Canadians and there is no cure. Hopgood was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 8 and by the time she was a teenager, a growth spurt caused scoliosis in her spine, which affected her ability to walk. But it wasn’t until she moved to Toronto in 2005 for school, when she realized that in order for her to live on her own, she needed a mobility device. Since then, she has used a mobility scooter (like an electric wheelchair) to get around and a manual wheelchair when travelling. While there was an initial reluctance to use a mobility scooter, it has meant that Hopgood could get around on her own successfully and safely and complete her studies. “It’s like a blessing, but also a curse in some ways, because you lose that mobility that you had before, but it gives you freedom in other ways.”
Designing inclusive workplaces
Hopgood has been fortunate to work close to home for most of her career – an intentional decision after holding jobs in the past that required complicated travel to and from the office with little accommodation. Now, as an entrepreneur, she has more control over her workspace and schedule but remains an advocate for accessibility as she has done throughout her career. Along with her partner, they outline some ways that employers can accommodate people with disabilities that may appear commonplace but are still not available to all workers today. These accommodations benefit all workers, whether they have disabilities or not. They also align with transportation demand management (TDM) principles that pointA bases its work on.
Flexible work hours
“It was very stressful in the mornings when I was trying to get to work for 9, it always seemed to be impossible for me.”
A past job Hopgood held required a 40-minute trip to Davisville TTC station. This meant getting on the TTC at the closest accessible station, which happened to be Bloor-Yonge, Canada’s busiest transit station (which sees, on average, more than 200,000 daily riders pre-pandemic). As a result, no matter how early she got to the station, she could never make it to the office for 9 a.m.
Flexible work hours are not just limited to when employees arrive, but also when they leave and their ability to make up time. This greatly reduces the stress of trying to arrive or leave at a particular time, by encouraging autonomy over work schedules and thus increasing employee productivity. At pointA, we speak to employers about core hours, where all staff are available during the middle of the day (usually between 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.), but there’s flexibility in when they start and end their workdays. By travelling outside of rush hours, employees can reduce their travel time, making them more productive and able to spend time doing things other than sitting in traffic.
A large part of accommodation comes down to communication. When So worked with Hopgood, senior management and the office team were always very good at informing her if the elevators were down, the accessible washroom was out of order, or a snowstorm was expected so that Hopgood could arrive later or leave earlier.
Remote work/work from home policy
While this has been the reality for many people during the pandemic, many workplaces are expecting that post-pandemic, employees will return to full-time, in-office work. But this is not always possible for people with disabilities. Hopgood recalls the 2011 snowstorm when she was “housebound for like two or three days” because the snow was not plowed for her to use her mobility scooter.
Even if she can get outdoors, extreme cold weather poses a challenge. When walking, people generate body heat, which keeps them warmer. But in Hopgood’s case, because she is sitting in a mobility scooter, she struggles to stay warm. As a result, getting to and from work in the winter can be a very tiring, cold, and daunting task.
Worse, “when I get sick, I get really sick. So, if I feel like I’m getting sick [it’s important] to conserve that energy so that I’m not overextending it by going to and from work.” Allowing working from home means employees can still be productive without having to take sick days if they cannot work in office.
Like flexible work hours, working from home reduces the burden placed on an already stressed transportation system during rush hours. More importantly, not commuting at all and working from home is a very sustainable commute, one that can save employees time and money.
Plan the office for a mobility scooter
Nasir’s perspective on accessibility changed after meeting Hopgood. “Going up three stairs to get to somewhere was nothing for me or stepping over the sidewalk or just crossing the road quickly. I never thought about it, how it was for someone in a wheelchair. I realized that there are so many little things that I took for granted.”
When it comes to work, accessibility is not just about getting to an office building, but also navigating the office once inside. Besides having elevators in a building and preferably an accessible washroom on the same floor of the office, Hopgood advises employers to provide enough space for her mobility scooter to turn inside the office. Otherwise, “I would knock my mobility scooter into the wall and it would put a mark on the wall [because] I barely have enough room to like turn around.” This also means investing in a quality desk and chair to support her muscular dystrophy.
In Nasir’s work, he’s glad to see that many of his global projects now require the incorporation of accessibility standards, especially for large public projects. His firm applies Toronto accessibility standards to their international projects because they match or exceed the standards used in many countries. At his work, Nasir is the unofficial accessibility consultant due to his daily personal experiences with these kinds of challenges. “We have to think about accessibility as a profession, in addition to me personally. I do think about this pretty much 24 hours a day.”
For someone with a mobility disability, getting around the city for meetings can be extremely difficult. While the mobility scooter is a very sustainable mode of transportation (only needing to be charged), there are limits of how far Hopgood can go, especially with Legend.
While much is done to improve accessibility in public transit, there are still times when an out of order elevator at a subway station or a bus ramp that is frozen shut can make it much harder – and more time-consuming – to get around.
Ride hailing is only available to Hopgood if there is an accessible taxi. Otherwise, ride hailing is very difficult. While riders can now indicate that there is a service animal and/or wheelchair coming along for the ride, previously, Hopgood found that “many drivers [didn’t] stop because of Legend, even though he is a service dog. Others didn’t because it’s a lot of work to open a trunk and put the wheelchair in the back.”
Asking for and offering virtual meeting options can mitigate these transportation struggles, as can asking clients to meet at your office whenever possible. Employers should take this into consideration and offer employees with mobility needs the option of taking different forms of transportation and offering reimbursement. It may also mean, if necessary, allowing another staff member to accompany them to provide any required assistance.
Why inclusive workspaces benefit all
For Hopgood, getting around requires a lot of initial planning and skill. “We have to plan everything. We can’t just wing it,” explains Nasir. “We have to plan where we’re going, how we’re getting there, what we’re taking with us.” In some ways, with the COVID-19 lockdown, “people are becoming more understanding and more compassionate and empathetic” because they have to take these same measures of foresight and planning.
When employers implement inclusive workplace policies and workspaces, everyone benefits, not just those who require it most. Nasir agrees: “[Accessibility means] not having to worry. It means that Michelle can be on her own, be independent, and not have to constantly rely on other people to get from A to B.” For Hopgood and Nasir, the denominator for them is about independence and dignity. “Why should [we] be an exception when we don’t want to be an exception?”