• The Trans Canada Trail, officially renamed The Great Trail in September 2016, is a cross-Canada system of greenways, waterways, and roadways. (Photo: The Great Trail)

Trans Canada Trail and AccessNow — a grassroots social start-up that provides a navigational resource to review barrier-free areas — have teamed up with the Canadian Paralympic Committee to document accessibility barriers along one of the longest nature trails in the world.

AccessNow based in Toronto, began with its founder Maayan Ziv’s personal experience of using a wheelchair. 

“Throughout my life I always struggled to find information about places that are actually accessible to me,” she says.

When Ziv arrives at different places she says she’s often greeted by steps at entrances or a lack of elevators or ramps. The frustration that comes from being limited to access and experience everyday places sparked her mission to create a platform that could share the accessibility of places around the world.

Maayan Ziv shows a user the AccessNow app. (Photo supplied)

The AccessNow app initially launched with a focus on people who are experiencing mobility barriers. It has now expanded to include different types of variances from guide dog inclusive spaces to scent-free, and quiet or low-lighting environments. Once you download this interactive app and become a member of the community, you have the ability to search for locations with specific accessibility features. Using the filter function narrows down these places to meet your individual needs. 

By inputting tags and descriptions from previous or lived experience, you can rate new locations to put them on the map. In over 34 countries, this mission has grown to pinpoint 26, 229 places that are either accessible, partially accessible or not accessible at all. Browsing the map will help discover potential places to visit globally.

Paralympians and Para athletes continue to volunteer their time to identify sections of the trail that hinder their outdoor experience.

“Trail traffic has increased by 50 per cent since the onset of the pandemic,” says Eleanor McMahon, president and CEO of Trans Canada Trail. 

A survey conducted shows that 95 per cent of people report that accessing trails is a fundamental way for them to enhance mental health – and an equal number say their physical health. The same poll shows that 100 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old Canadians say they’re out on the trails because it helps with their mental wellbeing.

“[It’s] interesting that the pandemic, which has had such an indelible mark and it’s been so dreadful for so many in our country, the trail has given them the opportunity to connect to each other, to connect to nature, to connect to their community in really powerful ways,” she says. “It is the silver lining in this terrible cloud that more people are outdoors and exercising and really finding refuge in trails.”

Both Ziv and McMahon acknowledge the importance of being outdoors within parks and trails. Ziv says it is just as important as it is to be able to show up at a school, library, hotel or restaurant – all of which have accessibility standards to meet, laid out by all three levels of government.

After listening to some of the interviews with Paralympians and Para athletes that are involved with mapping the trails and hearing them talk about accessibility barriers, McMahon says it creates a greater appreciation of Trans Canada Trail’s role working with partners, municipalities and trail groups to make sure they’re a leader in this dimension of accessibility. She says this will be done by ensuring the trail is a safe and welcoming place for all and the first step to doing this is defining what those barriers are.

McMahon says that as an able-bodied person she may not think about the cracks in the pavement or the dangerous components to the trail that could make it unsafe or uncomfortable for people with mobility challenges.

“The Paralympians are really giving us that lived experience from their perspective based on their mobility challenges, how lucky are we,” she says. “They’ve donated time to help us begin to map out the trails.”

As athletes, the trails are a place where Paralympians and Para athletes’ desire to exercise and workout safely can be satisfied during the COVID-19 pandemic. This highlights why this partnership that works to pinpoint barriers encountered is such a valued initiative.

Ziv says the message is about inclusivity – including people with diverse experiences within the benefits of the outdoors and helping inform them of any barriers before leaving the house. This partnership focuses on accessibility on the trail from coast to coast and creates visibility about the importance of access.

“Creating access is something we’re really passionate about at AccessNow and we’re so excited about the partnership with Trans Canada Trail where we can now begin to share this with trail segments and communities across Canada,” Ziv says. “This is the start, not the end of the exploration and we’re really hoping to encourage people within the community to share what they know, what they experience so we can learn even more.” 

The two partners are in the midst of compiling reports of the athletes’ findings that will be launched on the AccessNow app in April.