This is the first instalment of “Access,” a Black Press Media three-part series focusing on accessibility in Greater Victoria. See Part Two- Access: Greater Victoria non-profit brings the outdoors to people of all abilities
Cracks, bumps, inclines and gum. All things I’d never paid much attention to while walking around downtown Victoria, but which matter a lot while using a wheelchair.
Wendy Cox, executive director from the Victoria Disability Resource Centre, invited me to take a roll with her in June to see where the barriers are for people using a wheelchair in the downtown core. Together, along with Black Press Media reporter Nina Grossman, we’d document the everyday triumphs and challenges of a simple task: heading to the mall and grabbing lunch.
“Ultimately what I want to bring about is an awareness of the barriers that people in wheelchairs [and] people who use mobility devices face every day in the community,” Cox said. “It’s not necessarily the disability causing the barrier, it’s the environment … and of course attitudes as well.”
Cox has used a wheelchair for many years, and suffice to say she’s a pro at getting around. Since she works downtown she’s mastered finding the shallowest curbs, memorized where all the accessible washrooms are and scouted out the stores with the widest aisles. She’s also acutely aware of where the shortfalls are for a population of diverse needs.
At the start of our venture I had to get the basics down; forwards, backwards, turning and learning to pop my caster wheels (the small ones in front) when going over a bump. After – somewhat – mastering those moves we hit the streets.
Following @NicoleCrescenzi today as she learns about the barriers facing people with disabilities in #YYJ @DRCVictoria is guiding Nicole through crowded sidewalks and difficult crosswalks. pic.twitter.com/tVUUrcGe1G— Nina Grossman (@NinaGrossman) June 12, 2019
Immediately I noticed the visually imperceptible slant of the sidewalks onto the streets – designed to move water off of them – adds an extra effort to keeping my path straight.
“One of your arms always works harder than the other,” Cox noted.
After figuring out the etiquette of not blocking a whole sidewalk while trying to navigate lamp posts, sandwich boards and people, we got to the first trial: a crosswalk.
The intersection at Fort and Blanshard streets is notorious to people using wheelchairs for the truncated domes bordering each side of the crosswalk. The bumps embedded into the concrete are designed for people who are blind or partially sighted, but add a rattling experience for people with wheels.
After a raggedy trip into the crosswalk, I pushed along to see that the crosswalk countdown was already halfway done. Gunning my way to get to the other side on time, I failed to find the flattest portion of the curb (which is actually outside of the crosswalk parameters) and got my wheel jammed in a shallow rut between the concrete. Trying to turn around made it worse, and my chair tilted into the neighbouring street.
After feebly attempting to get out of the situation for what felt like an eternity, Cox calmly suggested I just get up and move the chair.
Task two: the mall. The downtown Bay Centre has wide and smooth hallways, but several steep slants that gave my forearms a workout. After pausing for a moment so I could catch my breath, we made our way to the elevator. Luckily it wasn’t too much of a wait, though Cox told me it’s often a slow process and can be very crowded, which means waiting for the next one.
When we got to the food court, Cox suggested I try finding the washroom. Easy, I thought, it’s next to the other ones.
I wheeled my way to the women’s washroom but upon getting there I found a confusing sign that told me to go across the food court, near the men’s washroom. When I got there, I was told to find an attendant to unlock the door for me.
Directed to another bathroom near the men’s, although staff says both are accessible if you ask an attendant for a key pic.twitter.com/Yo2ZSnKumr— Nina Grossman (@NinaGrossman) June 12, 2019
“Plus, people who don’t use wheelchairs will use those private rooms when they have to go number two,” Cox said. “So when you can finally go in, you have to deal with that.”
Well, what about the accessible stalls? I went to check it out, and after some tight turns made my way into the stall. In accessible stalls, the toilet is situated to one side to give room for a wheelchair and a transfer. While this makes sense in one respect, it means that the crack of the door is smack in line with the middle of the toilet. Due to the large size of the door, more often than not these cracks are wider than other bathroom stall doors, making your private business everyone’s business.
“People stare,” Cox said, adding that there are additional tasks to get done. “A lot of people in wheelchairs are catheterized, so they’ve got more to do.”
After leaving the washroom – in this particular one sinks and paper towels were at a suitable height – we decided to get lunch. Pizza sounded good, so we went to a local pizza shop on Fort Street.
This introduced a new challenge: entering an establishment without automatic doors.
This was a four-step task: roll up the slant, hold the door and roll backwards to open it, then keep the door open and move forward with one hand to get over a lip. I obviously wasn’t doing too well, as a stranger saw me struggling and offered to open the door, which I appreciated.
“It’s nice when they ask,” Cox said. Cox prefers to do things herself unless specified and joked that she makes her friends look like jerks in public when they know not to help her.
Not everyone in the public is on-point with their protocols – I noticed a marked increase in the number of stares I got while in a wheelchair, something Cox is used to.
“I’ve even had people come up to me and kiss my head, telling me they’d pray for me.”
Last task: get a hot piece of pizza back to the Victoria Disability Resource Office without catapulting it onto the street.
I carried a box of pizza on my lap, and learned that eating and moving are very divided tasks.
“I think one of the things I miss the most is walking around, just eating an ice cream,” Cox said.
We made our way back to the truncated domes, which now looked like teeth sticking out of the sidewalk. As the lights switched I rolled down, the bumps jolting my pizza into the air. I caught it with one hand, which meant my chair veered to the left, but luckily the crosswalk was empty enough for this not to be a problem. Lunch was saved.
As we arrived back at the office, I noticed my hands were sore and caked in dirt.
In the meantime, this is what my hands looked like after an hour using a chair pic.twitter.com/Yxc4dKdV8X— Nicole Crescenzi (@NicoleCrescenzi) June 12, 2019
I asked Cox, since a significant portion of the city is now under construction, are developers reaching out to learn how to make projects more accessible?
“We get questions from developers and engineers, people who want to do renovations or retrofits,” she said, adding those specifically certified in accessible construction work with the City and developers “so that every new building going up will have a certain level of accessibility.”
I asked about current infrastructure – if there’s an issue that raises a complaint, does it take much time to make alterations?
“It’s really hard to get changes done because it costs money,” Cox said.
“When you’re looking at an individual business, they really want to see a return on their investment – how much money are they going to make from people who need the ramps – and they have to put that money out themselves.
“They’re also dealing with bylaws, if you want to get a ramp put in that comes out on a city sidewalk, it probably won’t be legal.”
After returning Cox’s spare chair we walked out of the office with a new paradigm, noting every chip and ridge in the sidewalk on our way.