Whenever Linda Bartram leaves her home near Hillside Mall, she relies on her cane and guide dog to safely reach her destination.
Being totally blind, the only thing she can see is a tiny fraction of light. But that doesn't stop her from venturing outside, sometimes into parts of the city that are unfamiliar.
Catching the bus, walking on the sidewalk and crossing the street are challenging at times for Bartram, who's fallen off curbs and stepped into traffic on streets with no lip curb. One particular incident at the intersection of Cedar Hill and Finlayson Roads caused her to attend an open house with the mayor to raise the issue of improving accessibility for people with disabilities in the community.
“I had not walked in that area and I stepped out into the road before I realized I was actually not at the curb and cars were honking at me to let me know I had gone too far. It was upsetting,” said Bartram, who heads the Accessibility Working Group (AWG), which was formed in the fall of 2015 to provide council with physical accessibility improvement.
“I'm a brave person and I go out and do stuff, but a lot of those who lose their vision won't even contemplate it because the environment is not as user friendly as it could be, so that's what I'm aiming at — making it more user friendly.”
In an effort to increase accessibility for people with disabilities in the community, the city is embarking upon two pilot projects — installing “truncated domes” at curb cuts and Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) at certain intersections.
According to a report presented to council on Thursday, the existing “no lip” curb cuts within the city pose a safety risk to people who are visually impaired, and several other jurisdictions are now using tactile surfaces or truncated domes at curbs.
The APS allows the visually impaired to find the street pole thanks to additional features such as a pushbutton locator tone and vibrotactile surfaces — features the city's current audible crossing signals don't have.
The truncated domes would be installed at eight existing intersections at a cost of $30,000, and the APS would be placed at three test locations at the same cost.
City staff are still working with the AWG to identify the appropriate locations, but Bartram already has targeted two areas — Hillside Mall and the Bay Street corridor from Government to Douglas Street, where new no lip curb cuts have recently been placed.
“The big thing that blind people need is information about our environment and how to know when something is safe. For us it's audible primarily, but the domes give us information through our feet and that can assist us to align ourselves properly to cross the street,” said Bartram, adding the city still has a long ways to go towards becoming more accessible, but she's pleased about the pilot, calling it a “milestone.”
“It's just a lack of understanding what makes a situation challenging and what doesn't. We have to find out what's the best scenario that is going to meet everyone's needs and that's the piece that we're working on.”
Ontario and Manitoba are currently the only province with legislation that allows the government to develop specific standards of accessibility and enforce them through regulations. B.C. has a 10-year action plan aimed at making the province more accessible for people with disabilities, but the plan doesn't include new legislation.
In Victoria, the city is committed to becoming a more accessible community through the Official Community Plan and Strategic Plan. All municipal construction is designed and built in accordance with the B.C. Building Code's accessibility standards and features have been retrofitted into the city's facilities through past projects, such as wheelchair access and hearing impaired upgrades in council chambers.
Since the fall of 2015, city staff have also worked with the AWG to resolve a number of accessibility issues, and a handful of projects are slated for this year, including a City Hall Council Chambers hearing loop, signal upgrades at Pandora/Fernwood, and a wheelchair lift at the Victoria Conference Centre.
Coun. Jeremy Loveday, however, wants city staff to include accessibility impacts in all reports to council, which staff noted is already becoming a key part of projects going forward, such as the renewal of Crystal Pool.
“I want to recognize how tiring it can be for the working group to continually react to things as they come rather than having a forward looking framework that allows us to stop creating those barriers and making mistakes in terms of design that exclude people from being able to use, enjoy and access parts of our city that the rest of residents can get to,” said Loveday, who helped start the working group when he was elected to council.
“My hope is what this group will eventually do is push us to a place where we have a cultural shift in the city where we think about accessibility in every single thing we're doing.”