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How to fix the city

Halifax has a long way to go to become fully accessible to all citizens, but doing so should be a priority for a truly democratic society.

by and

"Any other minority group would not accept having a 'not welcome' sign on the door. I pay taxes, I shop and go out to dinner, so why am I not welcome in Halifax?" says Ben Marston, one of many wheelchair users who feels marginalized by the city's dawdling to make this a more wheelchair-friendly place.

Marston navigates his way to work on Spring Garden Road every day. He is effectively barred entry to most of the buildings on the street, as the majority of shops and restaurants have heavy glass doors and single steps leading inward. Apart from being the parasport co-ordinator for Sport Nova Scotia, he is an athlete who plays rugby and basketball, but even he is challenged by the obstacles. (See "Inaccessible Spring Garden," opposite page.) "Parasport" refers not just to "paraplegic"---people without use of their legs---but rather to parallel sports, all those events held parallel to traditional competitions, including sports for people in wheelchairs and those with limited sight and hearing.

Crossing the road for Marston means trying to avoid using narrow, steep or poorly positioned curb cuts. In the winter there seems to be no co-ordination between the plows and the crews that dig out the sidewalks---the crossings become impassable with snow and ice. This winter, Marston will be relocated out of the city---his designated disabled parking space on Birmingham Street is situated on a slope, which is awkward to negotiate at the best of times but becomes treacherous in the snow. Instead, he'll work at a more accessible office space in the suburbs.

The reality of the discrimination Marston faces on a regular basis became poignantly sour when Sport Nova Scotia held its Christmas party last month in a rented banquet space. "They used to have an elevator, but for some reason they took it out," explains Marsten. "I wasn't going to ruin everyone else's fun, so [my wife] Cher [Smith] and I went over to The Argyle, and after the party most of the office came and joined us.

"Some people in the office offered to carry me up to the party," continues Marston, "but that's kind of insulting to begin with, and I really didn't want a couple of drunk guys carrying me down the steps at the end of the night."

Marston and Smith, who works as an occupational therapist at the Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Dalhousie University, find their social life often impeded by accessibility issues.

"There are eight of us who like to go out for drinks on Thursday nights," says Smith. "And the first thing we have to do is think, 'OK, where can we get into with a chair and has a table for eight people?' There are only a couple of places it works, and if they're filled, we're just out of luck. We can't go out."

"I can understand that for some restaurants it's going to be too expensive to put in an elevator," says Marston. "But what annoys me is when there is a refurb of a restaurant and they have kept a single step. Why can't they put a ramp there?"

But Halifax is an old and steep city---doesn't that make it prohibitively expensive to be wheelchair friendly? "For all these things there are a ton of excuses," answers Gus Reed. "'It's expensive. Halifax is hilly. Halifax is old.' Well, San Francisco is hillier, London is older. I say it's rather open discrimination and I'm tired of being nice about it."

Reed runs The James McGregor Stewart Society, a uncompromising, bombastic blog ( that takes aim at local governments and businesses that fail to be accessible to all. As a Dalhousie law student, Stewart was denied a Rhodes Scholarship because he walked with crutches, but he went on to become a leading corporate lawyer and chair of Dalhousie's Board of Governors.

Features on Reed's blog include "Where not to eat in Halifax," a restaurant-by-restaurant review (see "Accessible eats," page 19); a store-by-store accessibility rating of the businesses surrounding the Lord Nelson Hotel; a blunt criticism of the design documents for the new Central Library and an entry lambasting MLAs for leasing constituency offices that are not accessible.

There are, however, buildings in Halifax that do meet with approval. Government House won the Victor Thibault Award for Barrier-Free Design in 2009. This showed it was possible to "integrate barrier-free design into a beautiful old heritage building."

Marston likes the new Canada Games Centre in Clayton Park. "At least it looks as though they have tried to do the right thing to make it accessible. There has been a good amount of consultation. There are excellent things like a slope down into the pool and generously sized disabled changing rooms."

New public buildings don't always meet the grade---Reed waged a six-month battle to improve access in Cole Harbour Place---but those contacted for this article generally feel that governments are moving in the right direction for accessibility.

For example, the city has been most cooperative in changing audible intersection signals from the "chirp-chirp" sound to the four-tone Montreal signal, which cannot be confused with birds, says Peter Parsons of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and city engineers regularly meet with his group to assess public spaces.

And the province has very stringent building code regulations for wheelchair ramps and other accessible features---in fact, the Nova Scotia building code is more stringent than the national code, says Jim Donovan, the city's manager of permits and inspections. The barrier-free requirements first entered provincial code in 1987, and have increased since.

The gold standard for accessibility law, however, is the US Americans with Disabilities Act, which, like Nova Scotia law, requires all new buildings to meet detailed accessibility requirements, but goes further, mandating that a certain percentage of renovation expenditures be spent to improve accessibility. In practice, Halifax city inspectors urge on such improvements during renovations, but don't have the weight of law behind them.

"A lot of times in downtown Halifax, the new buildings you're going to find are OK, but the old buildings, there's always some compromise in them," explains Donovan. "You have to improve accessibility, but there's no dollar amount. There is some flexibility in applying the barrier-free requirement in existing buildings. You have all kinds of examples of this in Halifax, where the face of the building comes to the [sidewalk]---and I'm not going to allow any encroachment into the" sidewalk.

Unless an older building changes the kind of business it hosts---from, say, office space to restaurant space---the city is limited in what it can do through its regulatory power, says Donovan.

Additionally, the provincial government has exempted itself from its own law, so new provincial buildings are constructed to less-than-accessible standards, alleges Donovan. "I challenge you to go into any school, my friend. Hospitals, special care facilities---I'm always concerned about these buildings because we're [city inspectors] not issuing permits and auditing them for compliance for provincial building codes."

Whatever the state of the law, disabled people say that while the situation is improving, the reality is that they continue to see new businesses open with less-than-stellar accessible features, and that government-controlled spaces continue to present problems. Parsons cites sidewalk cafes, which pop up unexpectedly, abruptly changing the memorized paths blind people use and often squeezing them into difficult spaces along the street. Icy sidewalks can also present problems as there's no secure "feel" of the curb with a cane, and so a blind person can get off-kilter while crossing the street. One problem, says Parsons, is open-backed stairwells like several found in entryways to Dalhousie University buildings---with nothing at ground level for a cane to hit, people bonk their heads on the rising stairwell.

One big government accessibility issue is transit. Presently, just 33 of the 89 bus routes are accessible to people who use wheelchairs, although the busier urban routes are mostly accessible. The city has embarked on an ambitious five-year transit expansion plan, which includes the purchase of 45 accessible low-floor buses---the new articulated buses now running on the #1 and #10 routes; as each new batch of 15 buses arrives, five older buses are retired.

Another issue for many wheelchair users is that companions accompanying those in wheelchairs do not travel for free. Other cities' transit systems, including those in Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa, have been allowing attendants free of charge for many years. Halifax's policy is "under review," says Metro Transit's Lori Patterson.

After long court battles in Toronto, that city's transit system finally installed equipment that announces each stop, both verbally and in lighted signage, on each bus route. Perhaps seeing the legal handwriting on the wall, Metro Transit is moving to install similar machines on Halifax's buses---a program for recorded verbal announcements is now being investigated.

Last year, Metro Transit attempted to end its policy of giving free passes to blind people, but council intervened to keep the policy in place. "As routes become more accessible and there is more demand, this courtesy will be looked at again by the council," says Patterson. There's a bit of a philosophical tug-of-war between Metro Transit management and council, with management arguing that once the buses are fully accessible, including with verbal announcements at stops, blind people should pay fares just like everyone else, while councillors are reluctant to drop the policy without assurance the routes are indeed fully accessible. A report on the issue should come before council this summer.

The Americans With Disabilities Act is matched by similar legislation in Britain and Australia, but Canada has no national disability law. Only Ontario has a Disabilities Act that is designed to "improve the identification, removal and prevention of barriers faced by persons with disabilities."

"I love living in Nova Scotia," says Marston. "But I travel a lot, so I know how bad things are here, especially compared to America with the ADA. There are only grants for non-profit organizations" to make buildings accessible. "Why are businesses not given grants or tax breaks for this as well?"

For Reed, the issue is simple. No matter the state of the law, no matter the expense, no matter the excuses or the delays, building an accessible city open to all is a fundamental obligation of society, government and businesses. "Accessibility," he says, "is a civil rights issue."

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