Vancouver – A Word About Accessibility & Why Not All Complaints Are Equal

Dear Mayor and Council and Appropriate City Staff,

Re: Accessibility and Paving of Arbutus Corridor/Greenway

I am writing to request you finish paving the Arbutus Greenway area immediately.

This is my second letter about this matter. I sent the first in an email  on August 11, 2016 to Mayor and Council via the City Clerk’s office but did not receive a reply or acknowledgment of receipt.

Hopefully this time I will.

In the first letter I asked only that you make the path accessible. I left it up to City engineers to decide if paving was the best option.

I now feel comfortable and confident adding – paving Arbutus Greenway is the necessary and best possible option.

Perhaps in the future alternate surfaces can be considered but at the moment paving is a quick, inexpensive way to guarantee accessibility.

There are two reasons why I have come to believe paving is the right choice at this time.

The first, as I indicated, is that it will allow me, as a wheelchair user, immediate access to the area.

The second reason is a product of experiences I have had since I wrote my first letter.

One of the vocal opponents to paving argued for the use of alternative surfaces that were less black.

AC clearcut 2

Tweet reads – should never have been clearcut. At least gravel is more appealing and natural than black. #asphalt. #Aesthetics.


I try to thoughtfully consider other people’s positions even if they seem not to have been thoughtfully expressed, so I decided to try out some ‘alternate surfaces.’

Before I relay the results there is some ground I want to cover. I hope you will indulge me the time – and the space.

I have the sense many outside the disability community perceive accessibility as the absence of stairs.

‘Yeah, we got it – ramps, right?’

First of all, we have not even conquered the great ramp divide in the downtown shopping district of a major Canadian city.  Second, accessibility embraces a lot more than ramps.


(The photo on left is entrance to Sage on Robson St.  The photo on right is Blue Ruby on Robson Street – it is a relatively new store and there is no reason the stairs inside the store -with no alternate means to access that area  – should have been approved.)


Accessibility is about addressing the multitude of barriers placed between some citizens and other citizens – literally, between us.

It is about identifying, removing and not adding to the barriers preventing some citizens from using a space, finding a home, getting a job, visiting a friend, forming a friendship, participating fully in society and living and doing things that matter to them with people who matter to them.

Usually the barriers are human-made and their existence reflects the self-centered definition of design, space and need by some citizens that ignores those of others.

The model for what is necessary is not based on the needs of the whole community but rather based on the needs of certain members of the community.

Lack of accessibility is caused by and a cause of discrimination.

If you belong to the significant segment of the population for whom some or all of these standards don’t work or are prohibitively impossible for you to navigate, then you are deemed to be flawed and in need of fixing. It is viewed as ‘sad’ but your exclusion is considered ‘understandable’ and thus justified. There is nothing the society needs to change about itself. It is your problem, in fact you are the problem.

An alternate – and I would assert, more rational – interpretation is to recognize that what is flawed and in need of repair is the design (design includes the construction of policy and practices) and the prejudices upon which the design is based.

This is especially true when you consider a great deal of design and policy is modeled after and molded for a non-existent ‘average’ person.

Because the accessibility umbrella is the breadth of humanity and because often humans put more energy into creating ways to separate and segregate than include, there have been and will continue to be growing pains.

What is particularly disturbing is when the things WE ALREADY KNOW FOR SURE DON’T WORK are maintained and perpetuated and the things WE ALREADY KNOW FOR SURE DO WORK are ignored

Or, in the case of the Arbutus Greenway, actively fought against because someone doesn’t think paving matches the colour of the grass.

The strongest argument of those opposing a paved pathway appears to be – alternate surfaces would also work.

One has to wonder why ‘alternate surfaces’ would matter so much to someone. I know why surfaces matter to me. I am not sure I understand why they matter so much to them.

I think their concern has something to do with a battle they are having with cyclists and my  loss of accessibility is just collateral damage.

As you are aware this week the UBCM (Union of British Columbia Municipalities) endorsed the need for a British Columbians with Disabilities Act. The aim of such legislation is at least partly to ensure accessibility does not get sacrificed, compromised let alone annihilated in political battles.  And while such an act does not yet exist, I think it behoves a  responsible municipal government to behave as if it does.

Here are some of the results of my field research thus far.

In case there is any doubt about this, I want you to know decorative stone pathways are not accessible. I managed to make it from one side of this short path to the other but it was very slow and involved a lot of maneuvering of my body and wheelchair.

Photos show a decorative stone path up close and at a distance.


Next on my list was crushed stone. One of the anti-paving protesters specifically raised Beaver Lake Trail in Stanley Park as an example of a trail that is not paved and is wheelchair accessible so I decided to give it a try.

It is listed by the Vancouver Parks Board as a wheelchair accessible trail and I had done it in the past when I used a power wheelchair.

I was expecting something like this:


With a surface much like this:


Photo shows a crushed stone surface with some markings from wheelchair passing over it.


This video was taken around a very small, flat, well-maintained area (not in Stanley Park) on a sunny day after a long period without rain. Bumps and indentations, though extremely minor, sometimes caught me by surprise. Perhaps this was a result of the combination of  all white stone and bright sunshine.

Although I moved especially slowly for the camera, the sound also gives you some idea of the lack of ‘roll’ on that surface. This means that as a manual wheelchair user you work for every movement, which depending on the individual may significantly limit the distance they can travel on it.







At any rate, this surface bore no resemblance whatsoever to what I found on the trail at Stanley Park.

Without getting into an in-depth conversation about wheelchair physics, I think it’s important to clarify a few things about manual wheelchairs and surfaces.

Initially when I became a wheelchair user,  I used a power wheelchair. A power wheelchair is pretty stable – provided the grade isn’t excessively and absurdly steep as was the case with the ramp outside a walk-in clinic I once went to.

When I first saw that ramp I was a relatively new wheelchair user so although I thought it looked dangerously steep, I reasoned, “I am sure it would not be there if it wasn’t safe.”

I got up the ramp alright but when I was going down I had to call for a passerby  to jump on the back of my wheelchair as it was starting to tip forward.

(Incidentally, falling forward in a manual wheelchair can cause scrapes, bruises maybe even a broken bone in some situations but falling forward and having a power wheelchair land on you can cause serious injury, even death.)

Below is the new ramp they put in place. The old one was the dimensions of the landing at the top of the new one. It occupied the same amount of space on that sidewalk slab without the part around the corner.



Photo shows new ramp that wraps around  building.


The experience taught me an important lesson –  most non-disabled people really have no idea what constitutes accessible design. I suspect that office thought it had put out a perfectly accessible ramp.

The experience should teach you that those of us who require accessible design rely on you to impose and uphold standards and maintenance to ensure it truly is.

Another often misunderstood concept that is important when considering the surface of Arbutus Corridor is, like those who use them, not all  wheelchairs are the same.

Photo shows a power wheelchair and a manual wheelchair


Power wheelchairs weigh anywhere from 150- 400+ pounds depending on what is included – for example mine had a tilt feature.

Manual wheelchairs vary significantly in weight as well but generally the lighter the better. My current wheelchair weighs around 10 pounds.

Standard wheels on a power wheelchair are markedly different than standard wheels on a manual wheelchair.

When I switched to using a manual wheelchair I learned I had to pay more attention to the surface than I had while using a power wheelchair. It is not that bumps, like the ones shown in the photos below, are something I can’t get over, (although they can be a real nuisance and may be significant barriers for many), it is just that I need to be aware of them. Sometimes it might require popping the front castors, a full wheelie or just being certain I’m not leaning forward at the time so the castors don’t dig in – as was the case when the taxi driver pushed me without warning into a curb cut that had a protruding bump at the bottom – thus sending me face first onto the pavement.

Photos below show uneven sidewalk surfaces.


There is one curb cut in my neighbourhood (not pictured) that has given me enough near misses I avoid using it at all.


curb cuts bump

Really bad drawing of a really bad curb cut


If, as was the case with the crushed white stone, I can’t see the variation then I might not be able to do what is needed to avoid or deal with the change in the surface.

Also, it is worth mentioning the importance momentum and control play when using a manual wheelchair, both of which are markedly easier to attain and maintain on a paved surface.

Back to my experience with the accessible trail that, for me at least, wasn’t.

Beaver Lake Trail must be accessed via another trail. There are several choices but the suggested one is Tisdal off Pipeline Road.

When I got there this is what I encountered  – apologies for poor quality of photos. I was rather upset at the time I took them.


Photo of surface shoes loose rocks of various sizes, along with needles, twigs, etc. on top of uneven dirt.


Now this surface in itself may not have been an insurmountable barrier for me  – although clearly tricky due to the unpredictability and variations in stone size.

There were two bigger problems. One was the grade. It’s hard to tell in this photo and I am not good at judging these things but I estimate it was around 10%.


Photo shows Tisdal Trail at Pipeline Road leading to the Beaver Lake Trail.


The third and final factor was the unevenness of the surface. By that I mean holes, bumps, groves, etc. as well as varying amounts and sizes of rocks and other material.

Most manual wheelchairs have 15 inches or more between each wheel and having both wheels on the ground is obviously ‘helpful.’ Beyond the risk of tipping (although tipping sideways is much less common than tipping forward or back, if the slant is large enough it can happen), there is the need for proper traction in order to propel or when going downhill, to brake.

Generally speaking I can successfully handle one, perhaps even two of these factors at a time – but the combination of three at once was more than I could manage.

Almost immediately I found myself with one wheel on the ground and the other spinning in the air. The combination of moving rocks, grade and uneven surface frustrated my attempts to maneuver through it.

I asked someone for help – which if it is accessible I should not have to do.

I went back up to the sidewalk and sat on the narrow strip of sidewalk next to Pipeline Road, on which cars, trucks and buses passed by going what appeared to be well beyond the speed limit.

It wasn’t the day I planned and hoped for.

I used to trail run 5-6 days/wk.

I remember the excitement I experienced zipping up my backpack that morning.

When I saw the path I felt the nostalgic warmth that comes with being back in a place you belong and were away from for too long.

I barely made it 20 feet in when I got stuck.

I looked down the path with longing and determination, wiped the tears and tried again.

I did not get much further the second time.

Several people coming out were surprised to find me trying to get in. When I told them it was labeled accessible they were even more surprised. One man said simply, “No, it is not.”

I went home feeling defeated – as if I had failed and not whoever decided to call that trail accessible had.

Some call it internalized ableism. Whatever you call it, I assure you it isn’t a good feeling.

For the rest of the day I replayed every moment in my mind, questioning if I really was as stuck as it seemed at the time, whether repetitive tipping really was as certain as I believed it to be if I had continued.

I checked the website and map online again – and just like I had with the ramp, I told myself it wouldn’t be called accessible if it wasn’t.

I told myself Rick Hansen could have done it.

And I would like to be able to handle surfaces that difficult someday – hopefully with more suitable wheels on my wheelchair and maybe a Freewheel in the front; things that cost money I do not have.

But none of that has anything to do with standards for accessibility.

And my dreams of conquering rugged trails certainly have nothing to do with the design of a public path down a main corridor in a developed area of a major Canadian city.

When I got home that day I called the Vancouver Park Board.

Afterwards they sent a grounds crew out and the trail is supposedly better now.

The email invited to give the trail another try.

I plan to, but I think I will probably bring someone with me this time just in case – which in many ways defeats the entire point of going for me.

Also, if a place is accessible I can go there alone – if I can’t, then it is not accessible.

Even if they have improved accessibility now – what happens after several days or weeks of rain?

I have lost trust in the Park Board’s judgment about what is and is not accessible and it’s ability to maintain it that way every day – without someone going out there and calling to alert them it isn’t.

I know this is a long letter about the future of one corridor but a) I really want to use that corridor and b) I felt the need to be mindful when navigating terrain littered with stereotypes and inspiration porn landmines.

I don’t want to suggest wheelchair users can never do ‘x’ or that wheelchair users have to remain on pavement or alternately that people in wheelchairs can do ‘x’  and should all get off the pavement. We are all different.

Some wheelchair users have literally climbed mountains.

I celebrate, applaud and personally hope to live to be one of those people some day.

But that is not a standard for setting accessibility. The fact that an Olympic high jumper can clear a fence doesn’t mean we don’t need to put gates on fences.

And, as I said at the outset, accessibility is not just about what works for wheelchair users.

Requesting the area be made accessible is not on par with complaints about surface colour.

Accessibility is not a complaint.

Accessibility is – or at least it should be – a human right.

Please pave the Arbutus Greenway and make it accessible to everyone.


3 thoughts on “Vancouver – A Word About Accessibility & Why Not All Complaints Are Equal

  1. Pingback: More news from the Arbutus Greenway | Stephen Rees's blog

  2. Pingback: Time For A New Approach to Disability Policy in BC – Part One – Why | mssinenomineblog

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