Access for all?

Within the City of Prince George, there are public buildings that are hard to access for those with mobility issues.

Patrick Harris, Nancy Harris and Heather Lamb of Spinal Cord Injury B.C. took The Citizen on a walkabout to demonstrate how challenging it can be to access downtown buildings.

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The first stop was the Wood Innovation and Design Centre on George Street.

"The steps are not marked with yellow and that's a building code violation and there's no hand rails," Lamb said.

There is a symbol of a figure in a wheelchair located on the glass to the left of the main stairs facing Fifth Avenue with an arrow pointing to the right, indicating the accessible entrance is at the end of the building on George Street. The disabled parking spot is located on Fifth Avenue, which is around the corner from the accessible entrance on George Street. There is a fire exit door not too far from the accessible door but there is a hazardous step down to the ground, while the entrance to the bike shed, just a few feet away, is flush to street level.

"The door at the top of the ramp is not to code, it's not wide enough," Patrick Harris explained. "It doesn't even meet building code and that's the accessible entrance that doesn't meet the standards for accessibility."

As the WDIC building is provincially owned, the B.C. Ministry of Citizens' Services, property division, was contacted by The Citizen but no response to questions about why the building is not to code was provided and a representative stated they would have to get in contact with the architect who originally designed the building. As of press time, there was no further communication.

The City of Prince George said federally or provincially owned buildings (or buildings owned by extension of the provincial or federal governments such as boards, trusts or commissions) are specifically exempt from the BC Building Code as it is a provincial regulation. There was a site-specific building code for WIDC and the city is not able to enforce it or offer an opinion on it.

The city issued the occupancy permit based on the professional assurances by all the registered professionals involved that said the building met that code.

It doesn't make it any less frustrating trying to access the building when mobility is an issue, said Harris, who has had plenty of years to traverse all kinds of terrain as he was injured at a young age. Back in the day when Harris went into rehabilitation, he was offered instruction by gymnasts who taught those in a wheelchair how to do wheelies, how to jump up a curb, get off curbs and how to get up from the ground and back into the wheelchair after the inevitable fall.

"They did that back then because the world hadn't invented curb cuts yet," Harris said. "I've seen a lot of changes and it's positive. We have come a long way but there's still a ways to go."

The next stop on the walkabout was the Ministry of Children and Family offices, 1160 Seventh Ave., where there is a cross slope at an alarming angle in the sidewalk from the automatic door accessing the office from the street. There should be a flat area at the entrance of the building before the slope occurs so that someone in a wheelchair would have no chance of rolling into traffic.

"At an entrance like this, I believe code says the landing has to be flat," Harris said. "So why didn't they bring up the whole sidewalk, flatten it by the door, and then bring it down again on each side?"

Lamb pointed out that the sloped sidewalk is not only difficult for those in wheelchairs and using walkers but when it's icy that is quite the hazard for everyone, including those visually impaired,or with mobility issues.

"And that's why sidewalks are meant to be flat," Lamb said.

When The Citizen asked the B.C. Ministry of Citizens' Services about the Ministry of Children and Families building, the response was the province leases the building but could not say from whom it is leased, so accessibility to the building is not its responsibility. As of press time, no answer was provided as to who owns the leased building.

Harris also wondered why city planners would not simply build sidewalks up to meet the level of an entry door to several local businesses, especially when there is only a couple inches difference from sidewalk to entry.

Moving along George Street, Harris pointed out spots where the city had eliminated the trip hazard of uneven sidewalks.

"This is nice, what they've done here," he added.

It was visibly noticeable that a grinder has been used to sheer off sharp, uneven corners to allow for smooth traveling on the sidewalk.

The last stop of the walkabout included the Central Interior Native Health Society, 365 George St., which at first appears to have the smallest ramp to access the building. Then Harris opened the door wide and the ramp to gain access was built inside the building, providing universal access for all.

Within the city, there is old infrastructure that exists that is difficult to work with, Harris said.

"So I don't get all juiced up about the old stuff but it's the new stuff - that's where there's no excuse," he added.

The province has a 10-year action plan set in place in 2014 called Accessibility 2024 to make B.C. more accessible for disabled people. More than 500,000 B.C. residents self-identify as disabled, which is 15 per cent of the population.

Harris has high hopes for the action plan to make accessibility universal.

Those using a walker, a wheelchair or a scooter face many challenges in a world built for those who are physically able.

In a perfect world every building would be retrofitted or built using a universal design concept, which offers all people equal accessibility to all structures and that's what members of the Spinal Cord Injury B.C. are hoping.

"People wouldn't even notice the accessibility of a building in the universal design world," Harris, the Access North project manager for Spinal Cord Injury B.C., said. "There is no signage, no symbols because that's what universal design is all about. Designing the building in such a way that everybody utilizes it the same way."

No tacked on ramp at the back of a building as an after thought, no side door entrance, he added.

"Grocery stores had the first universal design concept with the sliding doors - they did it for buggies but it pretty much opened it up for everybody," Harris said. "It was good for walkers and wheelchairs and scooters."

Also included in the universal design concept are accessible washrooms.

"So they would be gender neutral - so it doesn't matter if you're transgender or LGBTQ, it would just be a bigger washroom," Harris said.

Significant changes need to be made to meet the demands of the world's current population.

"When you look at 15 per cent of the population with mobility challenges and the aging population the world hasn't caught up to universal accessibility yet," Harris said. "Building codes haven't really been significantly improved for a long time. I'd like to see a building code that reflects the people that use our facilities today - an upgraded building code and codes need to be enforced."

Today scooters are large mobility aids and even the standard wheelchair accessible washroom isn't big enough for some of them, Harris added. He believes all those developments should be considered moving forward.

For all cities, Harris would like to see universal accessibility included in any city plan.

"Everything should be built, planned and developed with an accessibility focus because there's no down side to planning with accessibility in mind," Lamb, the information resource specialist with Spinal Cord Injury B.C., said. "It might be slightly more expensive but it's certainly cheaper than renovating later on. There's no downside to the rest of the population having adequate accessibility because it benefits all of us at some point."

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