I was conducting a power wheelchair assessment with a client in downtown Sechelt over a year ago. The purpose of a wheelchair assessment is to determine if a client is able to operate a power wheelchair in a safe manner in the community. It’s not as easy as you may at first think – it takes a while to get used to the sensitivity of the controls and the turning radius, taking into account the wheels behind the chair that you can’t see. And this could be a wheelchair weighing 300lb, so you’ve got to get it right or risk serious damage to you, the wheelchair or other people! Think of the power wheelchair assessment a little like your driving test, except it’s not always a pass/fail affair – there’s often room for teaching the skills and enabling someone to become proficient.

Anyway, we were heading down the hill towards the main intersection in Sechelt. If you know Sechelt, you know the intersection: Corner Gas, Batch, GBS over the road. I asked the client to head towards the pedestrian crossing control button and press it. The client did as I asked; however, I hadn’t seen that there was a gap between the edge of the concrete sidewalk and the area around the pedestrian control button, which was just earth. Over time, and after several bouts of rain (this is the Sunshine Coast after all!), this earthy patch had worn down, creating a 3 inch drop-off between the pavement and the earthy area. My client competently steered his wheelchair close to the button, reached out and pressed it. First job done – now he needed to quickly back up and cross the road as the white man signal had activated and the clock was ticking. The trouble was, the wheelchair was now stuck in the earthy area, and despite being a reasonably rugged and powerful wheelchair, it was unable to power back up the three inch drop. He and his chair were stuck, with wheels spinning in the mud. With quite a bit of pulling from me, and some Austin Powers-esque turning from him, we eventually managed to get the wheelchair back on the sidewalk. It really bothered me that it had been such an ordeal for him just to cross the road even though he did nothing wrong. If the client did the same trip on his own, he would be faced with the risk of getting stuck again, or waiting for someone else to arrive to press the button for him.

So a few days later, I wrote to the Sechelt District Council requesting that they take a look at this area as a matter of importance, due to it potentially being unsafe, and at the very least being inaccessible and down right unfair. There was some email correspondence back and forth where I was passed to the Ministry of Transport and to different people within that department, but no one seemed to find the issue very interesting. I kept writing to various people every month over the course of a year, with my tone becoming more and more incredulous that the issue had seemingly been completely ignored. Finally, newly elected Counsillor Darren Inkster of the Sechelt District Council (kudos to him!) took some interest. I’m presuming he did some work behind the scenes because finally, over a year later, I received a message saying that work would be done to fix this area. It took long enough – too long – however, I am grateful that they finally did this work. They infilled the earth area surrounding the pedestrian control button with asphalt, making a smooth transition from the sidewalk to the button. It did make me think however, how many other areas around Sechelt, and the Sunshine Coast, an area with a high density of older adults and potentially lots of power mobility devices like scooters, are similarly inaccessible and lack Universal Design?
As accessible design and Universal Design can be applied to residential and commercial buildings, it can also be applied to outdoor settings. Accessible design is enabling people to have basic access to areas. Universal Design takes that concept several steps further, with the aim of making spaces as efficient and easy to use for everyone, no matter what your age, height, intellectual and sensory abilities, seeing and hearing abilities, mode of mobility etc. And, these spaces should look and feel good rather than having an institutional or ‘disability-specific’ design feel. The principles of Universal Design are: Equitable Use; Flexible in Use; Simple and Intuitive; Perceptible Information; Tolerance for Error; Low physical effort; Size and Space for approach and use. Judged on these principles, this ‘fixed’ area of sidewalk, despite being largely accessible, still would get the big Family Feud ‘X’ and “eeh-eerrr” (you know the one) in terms of Universal Design and that should be the standard we are aiming for.

Looking at the image above, these would be my suggestions for improving this small area:
1. This is a tiny knobby style pedestrian control button placed about 4’ from the ground: why not change it to a big bright button or better still, a motion-activated sensor (also good for hygiene!!), that is lower to the ground for shorter people or children to comfortably use. And it could make a noise and light up when activated so that people with visual and hearing impairments know it has been ‘pressed’.

2. This bush is too bushy and is encroaching a bit onto the sidewalk limiting the waiting space and also reducing sightlines. I’m a fan of greenery, but some shrub that is a bit less bushy and allows for some sight through it might be more appropriate here.
3. These paving stones are a shortcut from the sidewalk to a parking lot, where there’s a nice coffee shop. Small paving stones can become uneven, presenting a problem for people with mobility difficulties, and this convenient shortcut would not be viable for someone in a wheelchair, which is hardly fair is it? I would suggest either creating a proper pathway of level terrain and no curbs, or doing away with the shortcut altogether.

4. There is only one curb-cut on this corner of the intersection, facing in only one direction. So if you are in a wheelchair and you want to cross the road the other way, you would have to head off one way using the curb cut, and then make a sharp turning to the right to go across the direction you really want to go. This not only makes the job harder than it needs to be, but it also uses up the precious seconds you are given to cross the road, particularly if your mobility device is set on a lower speed for safety reasons. I would suggest having the whole corner transitioning to the level of the road, so people in mobility devices can head directly into the intersection the same way as ambulatory people can.

I get it – our knowledge of disability discrimination, and accessibility standards have improved over the decades and it takes a lot of money to retro-engineer our infrastructure. However, we must not get complacent with the thought that accessibility is better than it used to be and ease off the progression; we should be striving to continue to improve until all spaces are designed for universal use. Luckily, the 2021 Accessible BC Act will ensure new build complies to higher standards – but we also need to work on changing the older infrastructure to.

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