Getting better but still a long way to go was the theme of a Wednesday evening town hall meeting organized by the City’s Advisory Committee for Accessibility in HRM.
The event filled a room in the Bloomfield Centre, with talkative hands flying through American Sign Language, seeing-eye dogs crouching quietly beneath seats, canes tapping their way to spots, air tanks beeping rhythmically and almost as many wheel — as plastic — chairs.
Hosted by committee member and municipal councillor Mary Wile, the meeting began with brief presentations by City staffers explaining what their departments were accomplishing in the way of accessibility.
Then, the floor opened for questions and comments. Discussions centered on Metro Transit, public and retail buildings, traffic and signage, and recreation services.
“Fifty per cent of the cases that go to the [Nova Scotia] Human Rights Commission are by people with disabilities. I think that’s a wake-up call,” said the co-chair of the Nova Scotia Disabilities Strategy before she rattled off a “grocery list” of changes she’d like to see in the city. Her requests for annual crosswalk painting to begin earlier, trimming trees and shrubs that intrude on the sidewalk, and keeping parking meters clear of snow demonstrate how small yet significant many accessibility concerns are.
Taso Koutroulakis said his Traffic & Right of Way Services department evaluates requests for pedestrian improvements on an annual basis. Currently, it is focusing on upgrading five intersections with accessible traffic signals, removing jutting cabinet boxes on street poles, and repainting street markings, which includes increasing the width of crosswalks.
A Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) member commended Koutroulakis on this progress but said that complex traffic structures like roundabouts still cause serious trouble for the visually and physically impaired. He urged the department to think of individuals — not cars — when planning road infrastructure.
This attention to the individual came up repeatedly at the meeting as attendees explained their personal, and very specific, examples of accessibility issues, putting panelists on the spot to utter a solution.
Mary Lou Casey, for instance, is a deaf and blind woman who uses tactile British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate. She depends on the Access-A-Bus service. She signed that she used to have a bus driver who had made the effort to learn some BSL. Now, she has a new driver who she said does nothing to help her. “There needs to be some kind of accessibility for deaf and blind people like myself,” she communicated with the help of a BSL interpreter.
“That’s a really tough one,” said Patrick Meagher, manager of Accessible Transit for Metro Transit. “Maybe we can put you back on your old driver’s run?”
“You can’t put me back on his run because he passed away last year,” signed Casey.
Meagher half grimaced, half laughed at her desperate situation. He said the department would try to accommodate her.
Casey might be an extreme case but many comments on the topic of Metro Transit weren’t all that demanding; some seemed to be accomplishable solutions to common problems.
Pat Gates, a member of the CNIB and the Canadian Council of the Blind, asked Meagher to reinstate a partnership between the CNIB and Metro Transit whereby bus drivers received specific training on how to best serve visually impaired passengers.
Betty MacDonald, a community worker with the Society of Deaf & Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians wished there would be LCD screens at bus stops and terminals so that route delays could be read instead of heard.
Marie-Josée Crawford of the Deafness Advocacy Association of Nova Scotia recommended adding a text messaging option to the Go Time bus stop call system.
Simplest of all, a young, intellectually disabled man who needs a motorized chair wondered aloud why the number 10 bus was not accessible in any sense of the word.
Some of these suggestions are already being addressed, said supervisor of Service & Design Projects for Metro Transit, Patricia Hughes. A new pamphlet explains which routes and stops are accessible, and riders can request a particular one. Metro Transit has also recently started Tweeting route information and LCD screens will be mounted as part of the Bridge Terminal expansion project.
A new Universal Accessibility Plan aims to sand any rough patches, such as entirely inaccessible routes, added Hughes. She said by next year, only six per cent of the bus fleet will be inaccessible, down from 8 per cent this year.
Still, some audience members reminded the panelists that advisory committee notions of what is accessible sometimes miss the mark.
“Just because you think bathroom improvements will work, if you’re not in a chair, you don’t know,” said one wheelchair-bound woman to Darren Young, the project manager for Facility Development.
Young had explained that his team was examining the heights of installations and facilities in public washrooms. She offered to do the inspection herself.
A couple audience members requested a focus be placed on the Khyber Institute and the Hydrostone Market. One reminded the panel that not only would making these buildings accessible appeal to those who could not enter them before, it would also allow them to contribute to the ‘vibrancy of the downtown core’: an idea that has been so often lauded by the City in recent months.
Young also mentioned that many automated door operators and ramps were being added to public buildings this year.
A mother of a physically disabled boy said that while these improvements in the works, a sign should be placed on the outside of buildings outlining the accessibility level within. “So you don’t have to find out as you go,” she said.
Her request echoed the desire of many attendees of the Wednesday meeting that while full accessibility is the penultimate goal, proper communication on what is and is not accessible, and in what ways, is an interim best. “There should be a go-to person for folks like us and that shouldn’t be hard to do,” she said. ‘It’s basic communication.”
More than that, she suggested a change in discourse around accessibility in the city. She said demands like those articulated at the meeting shouldn’t be described as “considerations” that “would be nice” but as mandatory changes. Halifax should be accessible, full stop.