Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Unique resort for people with disabilities deserves to be protected

Tracy Hurlbert (sitting right) and her mother Connie Hurlbert
(standing left) spend time at the Wilderness Discovery
Resort (WDR). (Credit: Tracy Hurlbert.)
For people struggling with disabilities, the Wilderness Discovery Resort (WDR) is a dream come true. A picturesque resort located in Lake Shebandowan, Ontario, Canada, the WDR provides all of the accommodations that people with disabilities need, giving much-needed relief to them and their families. Unfortunately, the WDR is at risk of being closed down, with plans to sell off the land. Now, every effort must be made to save the WDR.

It is a scenario that should not be allowed to happen--a barrier-free camp designed for people with disabilities being forced to shut down, all to please a faceless millionaire. The fact that any type of public land could be sold off just to please a wealthy person without knowing all the details is insulting; to allow this private sale to take place on land that is designated for people with disabilities makes this possibility even more outrageous. However, one person is willing to fight for the WDR.

Kevin Johnson, an American citizen, has been advocating to save the WDR. He, his wife, and his father, Kirk, a disabled former U.S. Navy service member, often travel to the WDR to accommodate to his father's needs. In the past, Johnson and his family had thoroughly researched other facilities that are supposed to help people with disabilities, but they had discovered that many "accessible" areas often do not live up to their claims of being truly barrier-free. Johnson believes so strongly in the WDR that he has launched a Change.org petition to help keep it open.

If only people in positions of power would demonstrate the same type of leadership as Johnson when it comes to saving the WDR. Many people deserve to be blamed for the WDR's uncertain future, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is one of them. Wynne has spent so much money on the Toronto 2015 Pan Am & Parapan Am Games to try and make Toronto look like a world-class city, yet will not provide appropriate funding for the WDR. While the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games temporarily brought attention to people with disabilities, keeping the WDR open with new funding would provide a barrier-free facility for years to come, helping people with disabilities in the long term. Wynne has also refused to renew the lease for the WDR, showing that her commitment to helping people with disabilities is nothing but empty lip service.

The Legislative Assembly of Ontario (LAO) are also to blame for being oblivious about the WDR. In a June 30, 2015 petition update, Johnson observed that the LAO did nothing to save the WDR, despite an impending summer recess at the time. Johnson also mentioned that the LAO had received several requests from him and his supporters to extend the deadline before the WDR is sold off, but their concerns have been ignored. The LAO deserves to be publicly shamed for brushing aside the needs of the disability community, and for showing such disinterest in saving the WDR.

David Shannon, Executive Director for the Handicapped Action Group Incorporated (HAGI), which runs the WDR, must face the harshest criticism for mismanagement. According to an April 4, 2015 update on Johnson's petition, it was revealed that Shannon wanted the WDR closed. In the same update, Johnson also noted that since the creation of his petition, Shannon did not comment on the future of the WDR at the time. In another April 29, 2015 petition update, Johnson recalled that Shannon, as well as HAGI's Board of Directors, failed to attend a public meeting held on April 25, 2015 to save the WDR.

The scandals involving David Shannon do not end there. An additional May 3, 2015 petition update disclosed that Shannon refused to sign Johnson's petition. Shannon has also made questionable claims about having no money to maintain the WDR, but somehow finding money to fund an arts program. With so much hypocrisy coming from Shannon regarding the WDR, it is obvious that he should be removed from his position as Executive Director.

It is sad to see that the people who have the most power to save the WDR are the least willing to take action on the issue. However, this situation must strengthen our resolve to ensure that the WDR remains a part of the Lake Shebandowan community. We must follow Kevin Johnson's lead and do whatever it takes to save the WDR. When Premier Kathleen Wynne, the LAO, and David Shannon see that people care about the WDR, they will have no choice but to act on the issue. Allowing the WDR to be shut down and failing people with disabilities is not a legacy we want to be responsible for.