As B.C. enters construction season, advocates call for better sidewalk access

·4 min read
Accessibility advocates say blocked sidewalks at construction sites often don't meet the needs of those who aren't able-bodied.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Accessibility advocates say blocked sidewalks at construction sites often don't meet the needs of those who aren't able-bodied. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Nothing says summer in Canada like the rat-tat-tat of jackhammers pounding the pavement, but for Vancouverite Gabrielle Peters the sound of construction is often a sign of trouble ahead.

Peters is a disabled person and co-founder of Dignity Denied who uses a wheelchair to get around. For her, construction usually signals blocked-off sidewalks with too few or inadequate modifications for her to navigate around them safely.

"It takes what is already poor accessibility in the city, and it puts it down a notch," Peters said.

Accessibility advocates like Peters say municipal and provincial governments need to do more to ensure that construction crews take into consideration people of all abilities when temporary diversions are put in place for pedestrians.

The most common issues Peters says she comes across are a lack of adequate curb cuts or signs to warn her about construction and diversions up ahead.

Peters says sidewalk diversions that force her to use the street are all the more concerning because wheelchair users are at a higher risk of serious injury if they're hit by a driver.

Hodgepodge of rules

Across British Columbia and Metro Vancouver, there is a hodgepodge of accessibility rules for construction zones.

In Vancouver, construction crews have to "maintain access for all users to pedestrian facilities such as sidewalks, crosswalks, pathways and greenways by maintaining minimum widths, creating safe and legible detours and adding ramps where needed."

If sidewalk access is affected, crews have to submit plans to the city that include appropriate detours.

Putting a sheet of wood against a curb to replace an actual ramp does not make a sidewalk accessible, say disability advocates.
Putting a sheet of wood against a curb to replace an actual ramp does not make a sidewalk accessible, say disability advocates. (Gabrielle Peters)

But Peters says, in her experience, all too often those modifications include at best a ramp made of a plywood sheet that couldn't safely accommodate her and her motorized wheelchair.

One time in downtown Vancouver, she says, it took her 20 minutes to navigate through a maze of signs to exit the Granville SkyTrain station because the elevator was out of commission and crews were working in the area.

"The city likes to say call 311. Well, that doesn't help you at that moment," she said. "They need to stop relying on complaints and ... enforce themselves."

Accessibility legislation coming to B.C.

Across Canada, only four provinces — Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia — have accessibility legislation in place.

In 2019, B.C. established a framework for accessibility legislation. A public relations staffer with the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said the province is hoping to put those laws in place before the legislature breaks for summer.

Currently, there are accessibility requirements within the B.C. Building Code, but a B.C. Construction Association spokesperson said they don't apply to temporary access needs.

Accessibility advocates say legislation that outlines specific guidelines to keep construction sites safe for everyone would be useful.
Accessibility advocates say legislation that outlines specific guidelines to keep construction sites safe for everyone would be useful. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Thea Kurdi, accessibility and universal design specialist with Ontario-based DesignABLE Environments, says it's nice that her province has accessibility legislation in place but it falls short of what's needed.

"It's not a very comprehensive standard," Kurdi said. "It doesn't really help you with, 'What exactly do I have to do?' "

Kurdi says broad guidelines aren't as helpful as laws that outline specific standards to accommodate various disabilities. A lot of people genuinely don't know what is helpful, she says, and nitty-gritty details provide them better guidance.

Specific guidelines needed

As an example, Kurdi points out the City of Toronto's accessibility design guidelines, originally created in 2004, include specific measurements for temporary walkways.

The guidelines are packed with drawings and recommendations on how to consider the needs of people with all sorts of impairments and challenges.

Accessible design should be more than a just charitable consideration for those who need it, Kurdi says. About 20 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 identify as having a disability, according to the Canadian Survey on Disability. In B.C., that number jumps to 24.7 per cent, or 926,100 people.

In Canada, more than 1,000 people turn 65 every day, Kurdi says — an age group that is nearly twice as likely to have some form of disability than younger cohorts.

Kurdi points out those numbers don't include people with temporary challenges because of injuries, or even because they're pushing a stroller or pulling a large piece of luggage.

"Universal design is thinking about people from five to 95 and everything in between, and how accommodations for people with disabilities often help all of us," she said.