COVER STORY: Creating accessible communities on the North Shore
Being in a chair has certain advantages. Like speed. John Neumann just realized the 255 bus bound for Lynn Valley is scheduled to arrive at a busy Marine Drive stop outside Park Royal in a few minutes.
Right now, he’s in the depths of the south mall. But even with potential obstacles looming — oncoming shopping carts, texting teens and the odd patch of rough pavement — between him and his bus, he’s not sweating it.
“I can really fly with this,” Neumann said earlier when demonstrating his motorized wheelchair’s giddyup in the mall parking lot.
“Twelve kilometres an hour” he said, his voice trailing off as he got his “buggy rolling.”
It’s the same kind of feeling he had riding his motorcycle before a car accident left him in a chair.
The average walking speed is 2.5 to 3 kilometres per hour, he noted. That’s why he’s confident about catching the 255. But there’s a hitch.
“I would probably make it but you wouldn’t,” he tells me, grinning. “You’d have to run. We might get it.”
If not, it’s half an hour of doing nothing.
There’s a long line at the bus stop when he arrives, and he’s not sure if there’ll be room.
“It’s up to the bus driver. We’ll see what he says. I’m trying to get his attention.”
Through a maze of passengers, Neumann asks: “Is there room for me?”
There is. But first the driver must herd some riders to the back of the bus. Some aren’t particularly keen to move.
Neumann, 60, never feels comfortable about displacing fellow passengers, which is why he doesn’t like rush-hour travel.
To get his place on the bus, he must first navigate a narrow ramp, make a sharp left in tight quarters, then do a mechanical pirouette to back his chair into the designated seating area so the driver can attach a pair of safety straps.
All this with most eyes on the bus watching. It takes steely nerves. Neumann, who lives in Lynn Valley with his wife, makes it look easy, but for those boarding buses using mobility devices for the first time it can be intimidating. “Many years of experience,” he says after his flawless docking.
He admits there have been many misadventures along the way, including misjudged bus ramps and minor collisions.
Beside Neumann is another rider in a wheelchair. His companion shares a tale of frustration from today’s outing. “Horror stories,” Neumann says. “We all do. Predicaments we’ve been in.”
While speed is never an issue for Neumann, access can be.
There are plenty of obstacles facing people with disabilities. From sidewalks with no curb-cuts to inaccessible washrooms and parks to impossible-to-navigate store aisles. Others have complained of arriving at a public building’s underground parking to discover their wheelchair-lift van doesn’t have height clearance or going out for a special anniversary dinner and not being able to gain access to the restaurant.
The good news is the North Shore is becoming increasingly more accessible. One of the reasons for that is the diligent work of the North Shore Advisory Committee on Disability Issues (ACDI), a group started nearly two decades ago.
Alex Kurnicki doesn’t use a wheelchair. But to better understand the challenges a user might encounter in a City of North Vancouver park, he borrowed a manual chair and tried navigating a trail.
“It was hard. It was humbling,” says Kurnicki, a CNV streetscape planner, who is one of three staff representatives on the ACDI.
The tri-municipal committee also includes four people with disabilities from each municipality (Neumann is the chairperson) and three council representatives (councillors Guy Heywood, Mike Little and Michael Lewis this term). Meeting once a month, the group provides recommendations and proposals to the three North Shore municipalities to help make communities more accessible. The group also has subcommittees on transportation and housing.
ACDI got its start in 1988 after former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, then a project manager for the B.C. Paraplegic Association, met with then DNV mayor Marilyn Baker about setting up a municipal advisory committee for people with disabilities. Baker liked the idea and asked the district’s municipal manager to speak to counterparts in the city and West Van. The inaugural meeting was held in July 1989.
Since its inception, ACDI has been involved in numerous initiatives, including recently publishing a pamphlet entitled Accessibility Means Business to help local businesses make their premises more accessible; creating suggested guidelines for pedestrian access, park access and adaptable housing; and providing input on transportation issues such as bus and shuttle service.
ACDI also works to create better awareness about issues facing people with disabilities.
Earlier this week for instance, to help promote Access Awareness Week, ACDI hosted an event at municipal hall in West Vancouver. There, council and staff got to try a variety of simulators, including boarding a bus in either a scooter or motorized wheelchair — which they quickly discovered is no easy task. For those attending, it was an opportunity for a greater appreciation for the day-to-day obstacles encountered by those living with disabilities.
“One of the things is to listen and to actually go out with them on sites and into situations where they are having difficulty,” explains Kurnicki about his work with ACDI.
That could mean visiting a playground that a person with a disability is having trouble accessing with their child or checking out a crosswalk.
After Kurnicki struggled to maneuver a manual chair around a park path, he quickly realized the answer was to re-grade the path or use finer gravel — something he alerted CNV’s operations department about.
Even minor fixes like, say, installing a cement “let-down” — which gives wheelchairs, walkers or strollers a gentle slope down from a sidewalk — can suddenly make an area accessible. And that’s where input from ACDI comes in.
Phil Chapman, a social planner with the DNV, has been an ACDI liaison since 2006 and witnessed first-hand the impact the group’s had reshaping the community.
“Because they are now an official advisory committee of councils, they get to review all of the major policy works, like the official community plan, so they’re hands-on participants in anything to deal with accessibility. So over time it gets built into the policy culture or the corporate culture here. So we have adaptive design guidelines and bylaws for private developments, we include them in the inspections of public buildings, So they have an immediate impact.”
ACDI, he notes, also works with staff to locate and properly set the auditory pedestrian signals and to improve accessibility to parks in all three municipalities, among other things.
Of course the work of the ACDI, whose members serve two-year terms, doesn’t only benefit people with disabilities.
Sarah Dal Santo, DNV section manager for planning policy, notes that the North Shore’s rapidly greying population, as well as young families with strollers, will all benefit from the “accessibility awareness move towards making our streets and our buildings more accessible.”
Lately, the positive collaboration between municipal staff, council and committee members is evident in impressive new projects, like CNV’s new municipal hall, the Lynn Valley Library and Town Centre and the West Vancouver Community Centre.
“When we redesigned city hall, we sat down with ACDI and got them to review things and we incorporated their comments and here we are — we have what we see as a very accessible building,” says Kurnicki.
In West Vancouver, the group has also played a major role in shaping municipal policy.
[ACDI’s] contribution has been really significant,” explains DWV planning analyst Claudia Freire, who’s been a liaison on ACDI for seven years.
“One of the really key initiatives in West Vancouver which I think will have vast impact on the North Shore is they were instrumental in the district’s adoption of an access and inclusion policy,”
ACDI first worked with DWV staff in 2004 to initially establish an accessibility policy for the district to use as a framework to incorporate accessibility into projects and other initiatives. Five years later, in conjunction with the Measuring Up Working Group, the policy was expanded. “So we’re the one municipality on the North Shore that has an access and inclusion policy and I think one of the goals of ACDI is to encourage the two other North Shore municipalities to adopt a similar policy,” says Freire.
Much has changed since John Neumann lost his ability to walk in 1973. He was 21 at the time, an athletic kid in high school who planned to study math and computer science at Simon Fraser University. Instead, he spent 18 months at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre before moving back into his parents home in Delbrook which had been made wheelchair accessible in the interim.
Immediately, he felt isolated. It was a hilly area, and with limited use of his hands, he didn’t have the strength to push his manual chair up any inclines. “I couldn’t go anywhere,” he says.
Park Royal shopping centre was a refuge, with its flat expanse of stores, restaurants and coffee shops but there was a problem. “How do you get there?”
But things improved. His family got a lift-enabled van for his wheelchair and he later began working for the North Shore Disability Resource Centre (NSDRC), a group started in 1975. Then came the introduction of HandyDart in 1980 and later, in 1992, lift-equipped buses. Communities had also started paying greater attention to accessibility issues. There’s still a long way to go, Neumann says, but access continues to improve.
“Can you imagine? I can now get to Park Royal. I can go to Lonsdale, Deep Cove, Park Gate,” says Neumann who retired as co-executive director of the NSDRC.
As he nears his stop in Lynn Valley, Neumann hits a red button that beeps twice. “It lets the driver know it’s me.”
Along with the other man in a wheelchair, an elderly man with a walker is also getting off at the stop.
The bus trip home hasn’t taken much more than 30 minutes. “Its a whole different life, my life before was four walls,” he says later about the freedom to go places. “It opens up your whole world.”