Photo credit, Norm Reynolds: (Above) 5th Street makes it a formidable challenge for a wheelchair. (Below) Hardly a rabbit could squeeze by this sidewalk section, with a protruding hedge as an obstacle. Important note: The City’s requirements are that the sidewalk be clear of any growth so that pedestrians can negotiate the sidewalk without having to walk around anything or onto the street.  Anything growing from your yard should be within your property lines as well. That does include trees or shrubs that may be over growing the sidewalk from above forcing people to duck or also go around. In that case the over growth should be trimmed up to a height of at least 7 feet.

 

It’s been a long time coming, but in 2019 Canadians who face the challenges of living with physical or mental impairment will, finally, see the enactment of federal legislation—Bill C-81:The Accessible Canada Act  that will enshrine their right to participate in the rights and privileges that all the rest of us enjoy.

 In BC the right to participate will be even further advanced by Bill M219, the British Columbia Accessibility Act which has passed first reading and, depending on the outcome of the by-election in Nanaimo, be proclaimed into law this year. The BC Accessibility Act will further elaborate the rights of persons living with disabilities to areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Bills C81 and M219 are, certainly better late than never—however late that may be i.e., the US Congress signed a much more comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into the law of the land in 1990. Significantly the ADA was proclaimed as civil rights law giving it some real teeth in addressing the needs of people with disabilities in accessing public services, employment and accommodation. While some states have enacted accessibility legislation, the ADA, as civil rights legislation, applies comprehensively across state borders.

While the Canadian government website touts Bill C-81’s creation of a yearly ‘National AccessAbility Week’ that will “celebrate the progress” made in increased accessibility, it seems the real changes will amount to little more than bafflegab. Despite the fact that 3.8 million Canadians over the age of 15 have a limiting disability that seriously impacts not only themselves but a whole community around them, the rights to access created by Bill C-81 will only apply to the federal government and associated agencies as well as some aspects of some areas of the private sector. C-81, which ignores the private sector, falls far short of the ADA mandate which recognizes the immense civil rights impact of access to private sector community services like restaurants and doctors has on people with accessibility challenges.

British Columbia’s 600,000 residents living with disabilities are left to hope that the yet to be fleshed out 2018 British Columbia Accessibility Act will fill in much of the C-81 gap with legislation to cover meaningful access to health care, municipal, transportation, housing, recreation, and education services as well as access to the businesses that we all rely on to fill our needs for a full and rewarding life.

So with the federal and BC governments moving (maybe not far enough but—at least—moving within their jurisdictions) on legislation to empower all citizens to fully participate in their communities what are municipalities, the level of government that most immediately effects the daily lives of its citizens, doing to support their residents in pursuing lives of dignity, independence and full participation in their community?

If we look at Courtenay as an example, then answer has to be—not much! Well, we do have a Comox Valley Accessibility Committee (CVAC). However, municipal governments in the Comox Valley have a long history of disinterest in accessibility issues—even those proposed by the CVAC. In some ways municipal governments in the Comox Valley seem to be moving against the effort to become more accessible. Did you notice that the Comox Valley Transit System just expropriated two disabled parking spaces in front of the Courtenay Museum– two of the most valuable/accessed parking spaces for people with disabilities in the City of Courtenay? The Accessibility Committee didn’t even get a notice of the change until it was changed!  Those with longer memories likely remember that this is not the first open conflict between CV Transit and the needs of the disabled. In 2009 CV Transit arbitrarily decided that ‘no wheelchair shall be unloaded from a transit bus unless they had some regulation sized concrete pad to land on’. This cut off bus access to rural Comox Valley persons in a wheelchair as there were no regulation-sized blocks in the rural areas. Judy Norbury, perhaps the Comox Valley’s most recognized citizen on wheels, organized protests to this oppressive action by CV Transit. In the middle of the struggle over rural transit service for those with mobility challenges, someone at CV Transit finally called the provincial transit authority. According to BC Transit this prohibition of rural downloading wheelchairs policy didn’t exist in other BC communities and BC Transit certainly did not support it. The CV Transit ruling on rural wheelchair downloading quickly changed and both peace and mutual respect returned. However—once again– the recent seizure of Courtenay disabled parking stalls by CV Transit gives Comox Valley’s wheelchair transported citizens reason for concern about the commitment of CVTransit to the needs of the mobility challenged.

If you want to understand a little of the ubiquitousness of obstacles that people with disabilities in the Comox Valley face, take a moment to notice the state of sidewalks in Courtenay. I am attaching some photos of the partial to nearly complete blockage of sidewalks by overgrowing trees and shrubs. Now this may seem a simple thing to those who have full use of their legs but it is a formidable barrier for those in a wheelchair or other mobility limitations. Those with fully functioning legs simply step out into the road or squeeze by the obstacle. However that is not so easy for someone in a wheelchair who has to back up to a driveway letdown to get out into the street to go around the obstacle. That isn’t as simple as it sounds. People in wheelchairs cannot just turn around on the sidewalk and if they try to just back up they face the devastating possibility that as they can’t see with the back of their heads, they will lose a wheel off the sidewalk and end up capsized on the side of the road—devastating for them and their wheelchair.

Courtenay does have a policy on obstructed sidewalks: if someone complains then a message will be sent to the owner of the property whose shrubs are infringing on the sidewalk demanding that they cut back their shrubs to make the sidewalk accessible to all. The problem with Courtenay’s approach to accessible sidewalks is it means someone has to get hurt or be seriously inconvenienced before a complaint goes in and remedial action is taken. It also means that the property owner who grows his/her shrubs over the public sidewalk will be miffed as after cutting his hedge it will look decimated whereas if it had been regularly cut back to clear the sidewalk, it would look neatly trimmed instead of like a bunch of dead twigs. This policy of accessible sidewalks only if someone is injured or inconvenienced will, one day end in serious injury and potentially a large liability settlement for Courtenay taxpayers to fund. It is difficult to understand why public sidewalks can’t be kept clear for public use, before someone is injured. Does the city wait for a complaint to fill in chuck holes in the road before they send out the patching crew?

Courtenay has had a long history with indifference to the needs of the disabled. In the 1990s the Old Church Theatre Society (OCTS) took out city building permits to renovate the “old” Catholic church on Harmiston Avenue to fix structural vulnerabilities and convert it to the theatre it now is –the Old Church Theatre. The OCTS raised considerable funds for the restoration but balked at the idea that such a major renovation meant they would have to include an “accessible” washroom in the renovation. Not to worry– when they complained to the city about the accessibility expense they were told that it really wasn’t the expense they thought it would be because “accessible”–according to the City of Courtenay–means it has to have a wide door and room enough to turn a wheelchair around in.  “Accessible,” according to Courtenay, doesn’t mean that anyone with a mobility challenge has to be able to get to the accessible width washroom. So the OCTS slightly widened the washroom at the foot of a long winding staircase and the completely inaccessible washroom became an “accessible washroom”—though no mobility challenged person would ever be able to access it.

Even when things seem to be improving, it might not last. For instance after a running battle with the Accessibility Committee over the need for a truly accessible washroom in the new Comox Valley Art Gallery(CVAG) the gallery relented and altered the washroom plan to be fully accessibility….but voila, the accessible door quietly, suddenly got built over to be less visible and, thus,  less accessible.

One big step forward toward accessibility came when Courtenay hired Parking Enforcement Officer George Wedge. Lenient and jovial as George was, when it came to Disability Parking Stalls, George was unrelenting. My wife and I once came out of the Early Bird Café to find George crawling out on the hood of our accessible van to make sure that our Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia handicap parking permit was up to date. I don’t know how the current parking enforcement officer is doing but I do know that for the 15 years George was in the position, no one parked twice in a disability parking space without a current permit.

In preparing to write this post I phoned the award winning Vancouver Island Visitor Centre to ask about accessibility in Comox Valley businesses, especially restaurants. The pleasant voice at the Centre assured me that almost all businesses in Courtenay are accessible. Wow! I wonder if she ever visited the White Whale on Comox Rd in Courtenay. It would be accessible if you arrived by helicopter! You would think that a tourist centre would train staff in the meaning of accessible—very, very few Comox Valley restaurants have accessible washrooms—something anyone in a wheelchair needs to know before choosing a dining place. A little leadership either by the Chamber of Commerce or the Visitor Centre in putting together a guide to accessible businesses, especially restaurants, in the Comox Valley would make for a much more convivial valley AND encourage wider use/appreciation of valley businesses.

We have a new Courtenay Council seemingly more compassionate and community aware than the previous council. One of Cumberland’s first actions as a new council has been to commission its own Accessibility Committee. And it seems that Comox and the CVRD also have elected progressive new counselors, directors who are open and interested in the needs of those who most need assistance to become full and active members of the community.

With a little prodding this may be a banner year for action on accessibility and full participation for all–at ALL levels of government.  It has been a long time coming but, oh, it seems so sweet to see these steps toward full inclusion and accessibility coming!

 

Norm Reynolds