Amy Diaz, her mother, Carmen, sister, Lucy, and father, Jocsan, spend a rainy afternoon at Mundy Park in Coquitlam, B.C. Amy and her family are part of a study at UHN's KITE Research Institute that's looking at ways to make Canada's parks more accessible to individuals with disabilities. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute at UHN)

Whenever Amy Diaz sees a flower or a leaf, she smiles.

"I like to see her smile. Lately, her smiles have been rare," says Lucy Diaz, Amy's 15-year-old big sister.

Amy, 12, has cerebral palsy, and has been almost entirely housebound for the past year-plus because she's immunocompromised – a mere cold can land her in the hospital. Meanwhile, she had spinal surgery last winter, which was difficult on the young girl, who is already often in pain.

While outdoor activities would be safe for Amy, spending time in a park like so many kids and teens have done during the pandemic, is a challenge. A mere bump on a path means her wheelchair gets stuck. Too much noise upsets Amy, who lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C., near several national parks, as does wind or a lack of shade. Most importantly, Amy needs a safe, convenient and truly accessible washroom if she needs to have her diaper changed.

If there's no adult-sized change table, Amy has to lie on the floor. This stresses her, so Lucy has to help and hold her thrashing arms down. Her mother, Carmen Aguilera, who is also Amy's full-time caregiver, must pick her daughter up if there's no powered lift.

"My back is already damaged," says Carmen, who has barely left the house herself lately. The last time she changed Amy on the floor of a washroom by herself, Carmen cried out of pain and frustration.

As a result of these challenges, Lucy has become a vocal advocate for truly accessible washrooms based on the Changing Places standard from the United Kingdom that includes an adult change table and a motorized lift, as well as a suitable space.

Lucy and Carmen have been sharing their insights about washrooms and the other barriers Amy faces in parks with a team at the KITE Research Institute at UHN. Their feedback is part of a unique, three-year research project called Accessible Parks Canada, headed up by Dr. Tilak Dutta, Director of the Engineering Health lab at the institute.

The study aims to discover what keeps people with a wide range of disabilities from enjoying their experiences with nature. Barriers big and small impact whether or not people such as Amy get outside, which has a profound impact on their already fragile mental health.

Dr. Dutta and his team are going to find out what the lived experiences are in parks and suggest ways to make nature more accessible.

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