From housing to sidewalks: making Vancouver a more disability-aware city

It’s been 30 years since Paralympic athlete Rick Hansen wheeled across four continents to change perceptions about people with disabilities and, while things have improved, he says much more work is still needed to make communities accessible to all.

'We still have a lot of gaps,' says Paralympian and activist Rick Hansen

Thirty years ago, Rick Hansen completed his remarkable journey around the world, the Man in Motion Tour. Even today, he says there is still much room for improvement. (Rick Hansen Foundation)

It's been 30 years since Paralympic athlete Rick Hansen wheeled across four continents to change perceptions about people with disabilities and, while things have improved, he says much more work is still needed to make communities accessible to all.  

"Vancouver is a very accessible city relative to the rest of the world but, boy, we still have a lot of gaps," Hansen said.  

This year, the 30th anniversary of his Man in Motion Tour, Hansen is pushing for more awareness about improving accessibility.

"We've come a long way in the last 30 years and we still have a long way to go in the next 30," he told CBC Early Edition host Rick Cluff.  

Rick Hansen on the Great Wall of China in 1986. The Canadian wheelchair athlete's Man In Motion World Tour raised funds and awareness hoping to create a world without barriers for people with disabilities. (Neal Ulevich/The Associated Press)

Across the country, approximately 3.8 million Canadian adults report living with a mobility, vision or hearing disability.  

Finding suitable housing and getting around cities — from coffee shops to curbsides — are still two of the most pressing accessibility challenges for many people living with disabilities, advocates say.

It’s been 30 years since Paralympic athlete Rick Hansen wheeled across four continents to change perceptions about people with disabilities and, while things have improved, he says much more work is still needed to make communities accessible for all. 8:20

Accessible housing a challenge

Jane Dyson, executive director of Disability Alliance B.C., said the few accessible housing units that exist don't always make it into the hands of those who need it most.

"Housing providers said that when they have a wheelchair accessible unit available, they quite often aren't able to find a wheelchair user ready to move in, and so, unfortunately, the wheelchair accessible unit then is provided to a non-wheelchair user," Dyson said.

Not having a suitably equipped house can mean day-to-day necessities like taking a shower become impossible and, for some, the only choice is to move into an extended care facility.

Dyson said more housing is needed, as well as better tracking of resources.

She's created a new initiative, called The Right Fit Pilot Project and partnered with housing providers and government agencies to match wheelchair users who need housing with wheelchair accessible units.

There is a gap between the availability of wheelchair accessible housing and those who need it, says Disability Alliance B.C 8:59

Still no curb-cuts in areas

Mary-Jo Fetterly, who became quadriplegic after a skiing accident more than a decade ago, is now a disabilities consultant with the City of Vancouver.

She said although the city has taken successful steps to make the streets more accessible over the years, there is still a long way to go.

"In a lot of the older neighbourhoods, there still aren't even curb-cuts," she said. "You will go all the way along and then 'oh, I can't get off here. I've got to go all the way back.'"

At least once a day, Fetterly said, she encounters a situation where she isn't able to enter a business or engage with someone because of accessibility issues.  

The City of Vancouver is taking steps to improve accessibility in the city, with hands on testing on the Burrard Bridge right now, but many years still inaccessible, says disabilities consultant. 7:00

Dylan Passmore, a transportation design engineer for the city, said hands-on testing is needed to better understand barriers. He goes out and tests the city's accessibility with consultants like Fetterly.

"It's really important to get out there and actually be in the field with these people to understand their perspective," said Passmore.

This can mean, for example, checking the sharpness of a curb to make sure that both a wheelchair can get over the edge and a service dog for a blind person won't miss it.

"There are a lot of people who are talking about universal design," said Fetterly. "Really, universal design just means that everybody can use it. It doesn't leave anybody out."

With files from The Early Edition and Claudia Goodine.