Removing the barriers for people with disabilities - Salish Current
April 3, 2024
Removing the barriers for people with disabilities
Catherine Skrzypinski

Accessible parking isn’t always available, as Marney Smithies, co-founder of South Fraser Active Living, demonstrates. (Courtesy Kim Egger)

April 3, 2024
Removing the barriers for people with disabilities
Catherine Skrzypinski


Susan Bains, a 15-year resident of White Rock, British Columbia, would spend hours running along the White Rock Promenade training for local races — until she started losing mobility in her legs.

Bains, an accessibility advocate and educator, now uses a wheelchair after doctors diagnosed her with a rare condition that has impacted her spinal cord.

When she went back to the White Rock Promenade in a wheelchair in 2021 to enjoy the beach with her family, Bains said she had difficulty traveling the length of the pier.  

The pier has gaps in the planks, so it’s difficult for people who use walkers, canes, crutches and mobility devices to navigate, Bains said. Even for people using powered chairs, Bains said the pier’s surface is bumpy and uneven. In her case that could trigger spasms to her legs and make her fall from her wheelchair at any moment.

“This opened up my eyes about the impediments of the pier,” she added. “The pier is not accessible.”

Kiran Aujlay, a middle school teacher in the Surrey, B.C., school district, who also uses a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, has seen wheels and canes falling through the cracks of the pier.

“I couldn’t cross the pier on my own,” she said. “My boyfriend offered to help, but that’s not the point. Accessing the space independently is important to me.”

The City of White Rock Accessibility Advisory Committee addressed accessibility challenges along the waterfront in October 2023, including building three accessible ramps for wheelchair access along West and East Beach. City officials will also reach out with business owners and accessibility advocate groups to modernize access to Marine Drive’s storefront restaurants and shops.  

Memorial Park, located right next to the pier along the waterfront, was designed with accessibility in mind, Aujlay said. But the ledge was built too high for someone in a wheelchair to gaze out at the beach or to people watch.

“The intention was there, but the execution failed,” she said.  

Bains and Aujlay, along with other residents south of the Fraser River, came together to form the Equal Access Collective in October 2023 to ensure public spaces are accessible and inclusive to everyone in the Lower Mainland.

Navigating the pier at White Rock is daunting for those in wheelchairs or with walking aids. (Catherine Skrzypinski / Salish Current © 2024)

“This is a human rights issue,” Bains said. “The B.C. Human Rights Code forbids discrimination based on personal characteristics.”  

Bains, with the backing of the Equal Access Collective, proposed in January 2024 to permanently attach an accessibility mat along the length of the pier. She conducted research about other accessibility mats placed in Santa Monica, California, and New Brunswick, Canada, and found the mats would protect the wood of the pier, and offer a safe surface in all weather conditions.

White Rock’s city council will decide Tuesday, April 23 whether to place an accessibility mat on the pier. The mat would cost the city around $100,000 Canadian.

“I’m hoping the city council rectifies a physical barrier in a public space,” Bains said. “This is an obligation to the community, and the city needs to act on it.”

An accessibility gap

Around 27% of Canadians aged 15 years and older — or 8 million people — identify having a disability, according to a Statistics Canada survey from 2022

“Canada cannot afford to have a third of its population be discriminated against,” said Stephanie Cadieux, Canada’s first chief accessibility officer. “Worldwide, people with disabilities are the largest minority group, and the only group that anyone can become a part of at any time.”

Canada’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan from 2022 noted that 50% of people with disabilities in the country reported experiencing barriers that limits their ability to move around public buildings and spaces.  

Kim Egger, co-founder of advocacy group South Fraser Active Living from Surrey, said there’s not much enforcement in Canada with the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which became federal law in 2019. For instance, many able-bodied people park their cars in accessible parking spots without a parking permit and do not get fined or ticketed, she said. 

“Rules aren’t enforced in Canada the way they are in the U.S.,” Egger said. “Canadians are a polite group of people who don’t like ruffling any feathers. But it’s 2024. There’s no other demographic group in Canada that gets left behind like us.”

Surrey, like many Canadian cities, is trying to keep up with its growing population by building new homes, condos and apartment buildings. Aujlay said during her condo search, she found the infrastructure to accommodate people with disabilities is lacking in new buildings.  

“Buying a place was a frustrating experience,” she added. “I purchased a unit that was not wheelchair accessible.” 

Americans have some backbone behind their national policy with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Egger said.

Cadieux said that the ACA is similar to the ADA. The ACA aims to identify, remove and prevent barriers facing Canadians with disabilities, she explained, and is structured to have regulations take effect, albeit more slowly than the ADA.

The ADA, the world’s most comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities, took effect in the United States in 1990, while the ACA became federal law in Canada in 2019.

“Why are our neighbors to the south doing a better job than us making the world more accessible?” Egger asked. “We’re Canadians. We should be doing a better job with accessibility. We’re hoping that one day we can get to where the States is right now.”

City of Bellingham boosts accessibility 

Across the border in Bellingham, the city council adopted a plan in 2021 with a focus on pedestrian facilities within the city’s public right of way, including sidewalks, curb ramps and push buttons.

The City of Bellingham addresses parking planning with specific neighborhood needs in mind. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2022)

“Bellingham recognizes that access is not just a civil right; it is a social responsibility to uphold and promote diversity and inclusion,” said Holly Pederson, ADA coordinator for the city. “Inaccessible pedestrian facilities create barriers that limit full participation in civic life for individuals with disabilities.”

Bellingham residents gave feedback to the city in 2019 about problematic spots at crosswalk locations where curb ramps do not align with the crosswalk, uneven and rough crosswalks, along with intersections where drivers are inattentive to people walking in the crosswalk.

One project in the works in the Puget neighborhood is a full traffic signal at the intersection of Lincoln Street and East Maple Street to improve pedestrian safety while crossing the street, Pederson stated. Construction should wrap up in spring 2024, as supply chain delays postponed the signal’s delivery.

In addition, a new flashing crosswalk and transit island will be at the intersection of Lincoln Street and Viking Circle near Lakeway Mobile Estates.

“Each Bellingham neighborhood is unique,” Pederson said. “The newer designed areas were built to ADA standards after it became law in 1990. As Bellingham grows, we will continue to emphasize accessibility and make improvements that provide equal access.” 

Many of Bellingham’s scenic outdoor paths, including Boulevard Park, Lake Padden and Cornwall Park are barrier-free trails close to a Whatcom Transportation Authority bus stop. If residents are seeking accessible outdoor adventures beyond city limits, the Washington Trails Association has a filter on its app that identifies wheelchair-friendly hikes around Western Washington.

Welcome at the movies

One gathering space in Bellingham that actively welcomes people with disabilities is the Pickford Film Center. The theater strives to make its cinema experience inclusive and accessible to all by providing assistive listening equipment with headphones and closed captioning devices, said Skyler Hunt, staff and projection manager at the Pickford Film Center.

The Pickford Film Center has multiple assistive listening options; projectionist Mica Della Sala demonstrates one closed-captioning device. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

“Service animals also join us roughly once every couple of weeks,” Hunt added.

In the theater, floor staff have placed bold signs advertising accessibility devices, Hunt said. As a result, requests for assistive listening equipment and closed captioning devices have increased. 

Patrons using larger mobility devices often come to the theater and sit in an accessible spot for wheelchairs, Hunt explained, while moviegoers walking with smaller devices like canes and trekking poles also visit on a regular basis. 

“I love the Pickford,” said Jeri Marcus, a retired advisor and recruiter at Northwest Indian College who lives in Bellingham. She has limited vision, and listens to a movie’s narration with descriptive audio. 

Marcus said she bought a set of headphones to accompany the assistive listening equipment she can use at the Pickford and other movie theaters. 

Marcus and her husband, Richard Marcus, a volunteer at the Pickford, go to the Pickford around two to four times a month to catch Oscar-nominated movies like “Oppenheimer,” “American Fiction” and “Anatomy of a Fall.” Richard Marcus said he uses an assisted listening device whenever possible and the captioning devices on occasion.

Jeri Marcus noted there was more community involvement at the Pickford before the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during Doctober, a month-long documentary film festival. She said she hopes more people come back to watching movies in the theater.

The Pickford plans to open a new cinema in the coming months at 105 Grand Avenue, right around the corner from their current location at 1318 Bay Street, Hunt said. 

“The aim at the Grand Avenue location is to offer the same accessibility features available at our current location,” Hunt added. “After meeting with local hearing accessibility advocates, we are also exploring new technologies to further accommodate moviegoers with hearing impairments.”

While Downtown Bellingham’s arts, entertainment and restaurant scene is within easy reach of public transit and accessible, the area needs to accommodate more vehicles, Richard Marcus said.  

“My only issue with the Pickford is the lack of parking which will get worse when the new theater opens,” he added.

Another impediment on the sidewalks in the area is sandwich boards, which can also block access to ADA parking spaces. According to residents, sandwich signs are not visible for those with vision limitations or for those walking side-by-side with companions conversing with sign language. 

Coming together while staying apart 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on people with disabilities on both sides of the border. While in-person activities are slowly resuming in both the U.S. and Canada, many people with disabilities are still sticking to online activities. 

“We’re really happy that a lot of our social activities shifted online,” Egger said, referring to South Fraser Active Living’s online coffee dates. “This includes more people who aren’t able to physically get somewhere because of their disability.” 

“On the other hand, we don’t want to lose meeting in person,” she added. 

The advocacy group holds sporting activities in person each month in Surrey, Delta, Langley and the Fraser Valley.

“Visibility is important,” Aujlay said. “We need to show we are a part of the community. We exist.” 

Egger said she has been speaking out about removing barriers for people with disabilities since her injury in 1984 that left her a quadriplegic.

“We create a headache for people,” she added. “Advocacy is work and a headache. But we strongly believe that all people should be included, and nobody should be left behind.” 

Egger said she’ll be an accessibility advocate for the rest of her life. “This will never be over,” she said.

— By Catherine Skrzypinski

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