Todd Harding has seen a lot change in his 20 years working on disability issues in Kamloops.
Harding, who works for the provincial government, was able to vote independently in the civic election for the first time in 30 years last November, thanks to an initiative he worked on for a full year to make braille ballot templates available.
He lost his eyesight in a car accident when he was 24.
"We were the first city in the history of British Columbia to have a completely accessible civic election," said Harding. "Access in general is becoming much, much, much better."
But despite this, it doesn't mean everything is OK for people with disabilities in Kamloops, which why Picture This, the third annual disability film festival starting Wednesday is important.
"It provides huge awareness to the public with respect to persons with disabilities. It features stories of the lives of people with disabilities, their triumphs, their successes, their accomplishments, and also the pain," said Harding.
"I don't dwell on stuff that's difficult, but there is a lot of difficulties out there. That's just how the world is, it's not been built to accommodate people with disabilities... and so we've had to work really hard."
Two of the five short films deal with issues around blindness, and others address mental health issues, Asperger's and poverty.
Harding is a committed Kamloops activist and has chaired the City's mayor's advisory committee for persons with disabilities for the past 10 years and served on it for 10 years before that.
Aiming to improve accessibility and living conditions for anyone living with a disability in the city, the amount of work the group has done is impressive.
Since 2011, the group has developed brochures to raise awareness among businesses about disability issues, which are now given out with business licenses to any new business in Kamloops.
The brochures raise awareness about issues like clearing a larger spot on a counter, widening aisles, making doors lighter so they can be more easily operated by wheelchair users, or being comfortable and ready to guide a visually-impaired person in the store.
In 2011, the committee also held a video contest with School District 73 where students created educational videos on disability. The videos are now used as an education tool in presentations.
The group has offered experiential workshops to building contractors, carpenters and architects.
"We did a whole day workshop with them and put them in wheelchairs for part of the day (and) put them blindfolded for part of the day so they could get a sound understanding of why we don't need stairs in buildings, or what stairs do to people; why doors should be lighter, why we should have good lighting or contrasting colours," said Harding.
Recently the group partnered with the City's Parks & Rec department to create forms that will make recreational programs more accessible. The forms will let people identify extra things they need to be able to participate.
Harding sounded pleased with some of the changes.
"What's going on right now is awesome. Currently there's a workshop being developed to provide sensitivity awareness training to every front-line staff person who works for the City (and) will deal with the public."
"If I come in, it doesn't really work if you say, 'The chair's over there, the chair's right here'—I don't understand that, where 'there' is," Harding said. "So to give people information on how to guide someone with a visual impairment, or how to provide meaningful directions (is wonderful)."
"If I need to find something, people will assume, 'Oh he's blind he can't.' I find things every day."
If that long list of recent accomplishments wasn't enough, the advisory group has also influenced the new Kamloops transit plan to begin building more accessible bus stops.
"Transportation and transit accessibility have always been an issue," Harding said.
It's great that many buses are accessible but if the stops aren't, it still means wheelchair users can't get on.
One important change that's making it much easier for people with disabilities to travel is the service airlines provide now, said Harding, which is quite different than 10 or 20 years ago.
The bigger issues people with disabilities face are housing and employment, Harding said, though these aren't simply municipal issues.
People with disabilities "technically are low income," said Harding, which means not only does housing need to be physically accessible, but affordable as well.
"Employment is tough for people with disabilities. . . . The percentage of people unemployed in B.C. that have a disability grossly outnumbers the percentage able-bodied. It's huge."
According to Statistics Canada's 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, there are 4.4 million people with disabilities in Canada, or 14.3 per cent of the Canadian population.
"I'm one of three people (who works) in the entire government of the province of British Columbia who is blind," Harding said.
Minister of Social Development Stephanie Cadieux is coming from Victoria on Wednesday to speak at 6:30 p.m. before the films start at the Sagebrush Theatre.
Leah Fraser, who is helping organize the festival, said there are many reasons to attend.
"When you leave, you've been entertained, you've learned something new and you have a greater understanding of disability."
Fraser is a job developer with the Open Door Group, the organization presenting the festival.
"If you have a disability, it helps you know you're not alone," said Jennifer Edwards, another job developer with Open Door. "If you don't, it opens your eyes."
Picture This will feature five short films from France, Australia, the U.S., England and South Korea. All were produced, written and/or directed by persons with disabilities, and several have won awards.
Harding called the work of making the world accessible to people with disabilities "a work in progress."
"Where our focus for 2012 is going to be," he said, "our main goal… is to keep focusing on awareness."