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New advocate hoped to give stronger voice to disabled

It’s hoped the appointment of a new advocate for Albertans with disabilities will increase awareness of the resources available in the Grande Prairie area. Regional program coordinator for Spinal Cord Injury Alberta Mieke de Groot says many people don’t know about what’s already offered.

“A lot of people don’t realize they can contact their members of the legislative assembly, but if they think, ‘oh, there’s an advocate that I can talk to,’ it’s important that we have a go-to person in the province to help us access services for people who have disabilities.”

The provincial government created the advocate position in May 2017, and picked Tony Flores for the job last week. The province says he will “support children, youth and adults with varying abilities by raising awareness of their rights and the services available to them and their families.”

Flores has extensive experience working with people with disabilities and is an international para-athlete. De Groot says she appreciates that he is a self-advocate and that he will report directly to the Minister of Community and Social Services.

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“Our hope is that we will have a stronger voice for what our concerns are and what our needs are that need to be met at the legislative assembly,” she maintains. “With Minister [Irfan] Shabir, he’s going to be able to be a stronger advocate and then gain support within the legislative assembly because of the information he’s receiving.”

At the top of de Groot’s list of concerns for local people with disabilities is transportation, particularly accessible buses. She notes people in rural, remote and Indigenous communities often don’t have the same access to services as people in the city.

“We have people who are returning home on discharge, perhaps from care centres or from rehabilitation centres or from hospitals. Their houses may be accessible to them but then they step out the door and they’re on a dirt road or a gravel road, and then they can’t access local services because of that.”

The City of Grande Prairie’s transit buses are all kneeling buses with wheelchair tie-downs, and the upcoming rural transit buses in the County of Grande Prairie will also be accessible. Heading to other parts of the Peace country can be more difficult, as de Groot says the HandiBuses aren’t well coordinated with each other.

Just how Flores will learn about the issues affecting people with disabilities in the north is still unclear to de Grood, along with how he will address them. His office should open mid-November, with one million dollars in funding.

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