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Cheryl Tabler shows how she avoids sidewalk obstacles in her neighbourhood by wheeling onto the street. ((CBC))

A Vancouver woman with multiple sclerosis is condemning the city and its mayor for failing to ensure newly upgraded areas are wheelchair accessible.

"It's like an obstacle course trying to get down the street," Cheryl Tabler said.

Tabler and other citizens with disabilities are especially upset with the outgoing mayor, quadriplegic Sam Sullivan, for claiming several times that Vancouver is the most accessible city in North America — perhaps in the world.

"He does a huge disservice both to the city and disabled persons every time he boasts about Vancouver's accessibility," Tabler said. "His words encourage complacency — which can only prevent much-needed improvement."

Margaret Birrell of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities agreed.

Sullivan statements misleading, group says

"[For Sullivan] to make a sweeping statement and say 'You know we are a world-class accessible city' is very, very misleading and it undercuts the work that we do," said Birrell. "It's giving bureaucrats and the public the impression that there's nothing wrong — everything's accessible so there's no problem."

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Mayor Sam Sullivan says Vancouver is more accessible than other cities. ((CBC))

Sullivan, who recently lost his party's nomination race to run for mayor in November, insisted his comments about Vancouver's accessibility are justified.

"Compared to every other city in Canada, we are light years ahead," said Sullivan. "All [disabled citizens] have to do is go to any other city in this continent and they will determine that we are living in paradise as far as access goes."

Tabler was an active Vancouver lawyer when she was diagnosed with MS nine years ago. She has been in a wheelchair for the last five years and must use a manual chair to maintain strength in her arms.

She lives on west Broadway in Vancouver, an area where the city recently spent $4 million to upgrade the road and sidewalks. Tabler said the streets are now even harder for her to navigate than they were before the reconstruction — both in and out of her modified van.

"On a busy day, when I try to go down the sidewalk, I typically feel like I am a nuisance," said Tabler. "I've also been known to just go home because I can't find places to park."

Sidewalks dangerous, disabled parking useless: Tabler

Tabler showed a CBC camera crew how the new sidewalk is lopsided, presumably to allow drainage, which causes her wheelchair to veer dangerously toward the street.

"If I go [down the sidewalk] naturally, I'll go sort of straight down into the road," said Tabler.

When Tabler crossed one of the streets and tried to wheel up the sidewalk ramp, the obviously considerable effort caused her chair to tip backwards. The steep curb ramps are not just difficult, she said — they are dangerous.

"I broke my jaw once. I got a concussion another time, after my chair tipped over," said Tabler, referring to accidents she has had in various locations over the years.

She illustrated how the single, new disabled parking spot is unusable for people like her. The spot is curbside, parallel to the street. Most of the sidewalk beside the spot is gone — replaced with a large dirt planter and a big tree. The wheelchair ramp from Tabler's van slides out right into the dirt.

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Cheryl Tabler's wheelchair ramp slides into dirt when she parks in her area's disabled spot. ((CBC))

"You never know how soft it is, and that's the problem, because I have flipped a few times by wheeling out onto dirt or grass," said Tabler. "If the front wheel stops dead, the chair tends to tip forward."

She is annoyed that the city appeared to be more concerned with preserving trees on Broadway than making the disabled parking spot accessible.

"It looks pretty and somebody wanted it and they yelled louder than I did," said Tabler. "Before the reconstruction, a lot of the tree pits were a lot smaller."

Tabler said she's written and called the city and the mayor's office, and has had no satisfaction.

"I've certainly told them about it, and hoped it would motivate them a little more but it doesn't," she said. "A lot of it seems to fall on deaf ears."

New rapid transit line also has problems

Birrell said there are similar problems in other parts of the city, with other newly constructed areas — including the multimillion-dollar Canada Line rapid transit line.

"There are 19 things wrong with the design of the stations for the blind the visually impaired alone — and they are going to rectify that — but why wasn't that thought about before? Why didn't they hire a specialist in design?" asked Birrell.

The B.C. Coalition for People with Disabilities is also concerned about wheelchair access on the new line, which will connect downtown to the airport. Several of the stations do not have a down escalator — which means many people with suitcases will take the elevators, possibly crowding out people in wheelchairs, Birrell said.

"People who have got luggage, people who are using a cane but could use a down escalator will all be climbing into the elevator," said Birrell.

Birrell is concerned Vancouver's Olympic venues could have deficiencies as well, despite what she calls "misleading" press releases from the mayor's office.

"Not only have you got the Paralympics, you've got people who need access who will be going as spectators," said Birrell. "I find it very frustrating. Very frustrating. Because you wouldn't have disability groups if this place was 100 per cent welcoming."

Sullivan said he wants to hear about specific problems, but admitted he doesn't review new construction plans for accessibility.

"I do not get involved in the details of any plans," Sullivan said. "I am the mayor and my job is to set policy and that's my role."

Tabler said that is what frustrates her and others the most — that Sullivan doesn't get involved, but keeps talking about how great the city is anyhow.

"The views of dozens of ordinary people like myself do not tend to carry even half the weight that one simple statement made by Sullivan does, because of his high profile and circumstances," Tabler said.

"The cause of accessibility would be much better served if he simply ceased to address it."

Corrections

  • Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan is a quadriplegic, not a paraplegic as previously reported.
    Jun 10, 2008 7:40 PM PT