When you’re able-bodied, it can be all too easy to look past how inaccessible your surroundings are. But local resident Tanner Whidden wants Sylvan Lake town council to see that things can be done better here.
Whidden, who moved to Sylvan Lake last June, used the open mic opportunity at the last town council meeting, on Monday, Oct. 24, to address the issue around accessibility into Sylvan Lake.
“As a bit of a back story, I beat a one-in-a-million spinal cord cancer in 2017,” Whidden told council. “I went through two 10-hour surgeries, followed by 28 rounds of radiation to get the leftover tumour that wasn’t resected. I walked in the hospital July 2017 and rolled out of my third hospital six months later, never to walk again. I spent the first 33 years of my life able-bodied, and I will be the first to admit I never paid attention to accessibility, or lack thereof, for people with disabilities.”
Whidden said that last summer, he noticed there was no way for someone in a wheelchair to access Sylvan Lake in a fun and safe manner.
“This past summer, I got into the water once but had to crawl out and back to my wheelchair, which was not just painful, but also slightly humiliating as onlookers took notice,” he explained. “Today, I am here before you to suggest solutions to make Sylvan Lake inclusive to people with disabilities, not just for people in wheelchairs. Also, for others with limited mobilities, and for people who have weak legs or who are missing a leg through amputation due to diabetes.”
Whidden had been in contact with Sylvan Lake Mayor Megan Hanson prior to the council meeting. “When speaking with Meagan, she has already informed me that you plan to have two access points made this summer and that you are working with the Move with Jagger Foundation to purchase one accessible mat in 2023,” he continued. “While I commend the steps you are taking and the progress you have made, I want to shine a light on why those solutions alone won’t be enough to give people with disabilities access to the beach and into the water. Manual and power wheelchairs are expensive. For example, the one I am sitting in today I bought this year, with the help of AADL and Blue Cross. The cost of it was $8,000, plus an $1,100 back rest and a $900 cushion. That’s a $10,000 wheelchair. Myself and other wheelchair users won’t risk rolling our wheelchairs into the sand and water as it would deteriorate the bearings and waterlog other components.”
Rather than relying on an accessible mat and hoping people will use it, Whidden suggested the town purchase three or four beach wheelchairs, which can be signed out and used by people that need them. He said each beach wheelchair would cost about $2,000.
“Now, I understand that putting out $8,000 for four wheelchairs seems like a lot, but think of how many extra families you will be bringing to the area and the amount of money they will spend on hotels and restaurants, which is great for the local economy,” Whidden said. “As another option, companies could also be approached to make a donation and have their logo printed on the back of the chair and also on the storage location.”
He suggested the town could use a website to allow people to book the chair for a half or full day, and they could then use a code to unlock the wheelchair from the storage area.
“Once implemented, Sylvan Lake will be able to proudly promote themselves as an inclusive destination spot, that has solutions for families with someone amongst them living with a disability or who have limited mobility,” Whidden said. “I appreciate the opportunity to present this idea and solution to you. I look forward to the day where I can proudly go unlock a chair and enjoy the amazing sand and water as it is intended to be enjoyed by everyone.”
At the end of the council meeting, before departing for the evening, council members agreed that they had been happy and interested to hear from Whidden, and that he had solutions to offer.
“It’s like the old Field of Dreams saying: if you build it, they will come,” Whidden said in an interview after the council meeting. “If you make the beach and the lake accessible, you open up Sylvan Lake to people with disabilities and their families.”
Whidden said there’s nothing worse than having a disability and being stuck on the sidelines, not being able to do the things you want to do.
“Being able-bodied before, you lose everything you once knew and it’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard for me to sit back and watch everybody enjoying the things I used to enjoy. So whenever I can give that little bit back to people in wheelchairs, that’s my goal, to fight to get some accessibility so we aren’t left on the sidelines all the time. Being left out by society is one of the hardest things.”
Whidden is hoping to get this project operational by the springtime.