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Blind B.C. woman files discrimination complaint over city roundabouts, bike lanes

Maria Kovacs, who is blind, is pictured at a roundabout intersection in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Maria Kovacs, who is blind, is pictured at a roundabout intersection in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Maria Kovacs won't risk waiting for the bus near her church on her own anymore. The last time she tried it, a cyclist hit her.

"When I got out of the bus, the bike hit me in the back," she told CBC News. "This [area] is very unsafe for someone who is blind."

Kovacs has been blind for more than 30 years. Historically, she's been able to get around independently in her community in Maple Ridge. But in recent years, she says infrastructure developments, including bike lanes, have made it increasingly dangerous for her to go out alone.

She's filed a human rights complaint against the city, alleging three areas she frequents are no longer safely accessible due to infrastructure upgrades, amounting to discrimination on the basis of disability.

In particular, a bike lane that merges into the sidewalk was installed at the bus stop near her church, bank, and grocery store. She says the lack of any physical markers makes it impossible to know if she's walking into the bike lane, putting her at risk.

"This area has robbed my independence," she said, standing beside the bus stop with her walker. "Now, in order to come here, I come with a person. I cannot walk alone by myself with my dog to church on a Sunday."

Kovacs has also sounded the alarm over two roundabouts installed since 2010, one of which has a street-level sidewalk that is only separated by a white line. The other has crosswalks with no lights that she's unable to navigate. She says she could cross both intersections independently before they were installed.

"Once upon a time, I used to be able to come here and read a book if I wanted to, and I didn't really need to have anybody," she said, standing near the intersection by Maple Ridge Park. "But since the roundabouts came here, it's impossible to do

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

City denies discrimination

Kovacs filed the complaint in 2018. In its response, the city denied that the areas are unsafe for the blind, arguing that "bus stops are designed in accordance with TransLink guidelines ... to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including people who are visually impaired," according to tribunal documents.

Signs urging cyclists to dismount have been installed at the stop in question.

The City also says its roundabouts are designed in accordance with Transportation Association of Canada standards and provide reasonable accommodation for people who are blind.

CBC News reached out to the City of Maple Ridge for comment. It declined, given the matter is before the tribunal.

Legal precedent

Andrew Robb, managing lawyer of the Disability Law Clinic at Disability Alliance B.C., is representing Kovacs in her complaint and suggests the decision could be precedent-setting.

If the tribunal rules in her favour, he says, it could order the city to make costly changes to the areas deemed inaccessible.

"Cities who discriminate against people with disabilities should be treated the same as anyone else who discriminates," he said. "That is, they should be forced to stop the discrimination and take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Robb says infrastructure challenges for B.C.'s disabled community are widespread across the province but points to recent legislation that could prevent more cases like Kovacs's from emerging in the future.

In 2021, the province passed the Accessible B.C. Act, providing a framework to identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility.

Under the law, the government needs to create an accessibility plan which will be updated every three years.

"If that law is effective, it's going to be truly transformative because it's going to require cities like Maple Ridge, along with many government agencies, to be proactive, to take steps on their own initiative to prevent this type of problem from happening," said Robb.

Kovacs and the City of Maple Ridge are expected to make their closing arguments at a hearing on Jan. 24. Robb says it will likely take several months before the tribunal releases its decision.