An Edmonton woman with Multiple Sclerosis wants political candidates to start talking about wheelchair accessibility in the civic election campaign.

Cynthia Hooff says without help from her husband or son, much of the city remains off limits to her as design flaws and poor maintenance leave many areas designated as wheelchair-accessible anything but.

Cynthia and Kevin Hooff

Cynthia Hooff grimaces as husband Keviin pushes her wheelchair over a break in the pavement. (CBC)

“I kind of just keep a mental note and say, ‘No, I’m not going there,’” Hooff said.

Go Public spent two hours with Hooff and her husband Kevin Hooff as they did errands in north Edmonton.

At one mall where she regularly visits her doctor, the handicapped-parking stalls are only slightly larger than other stalls, leaving little room for her wheelchair.

“I can get up and walk (short distances),” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I had no legs. I pity that person.”

Other obstacles included a ramp that was inaccessible once they parked in the stall and broken pavement that caused her chair to tip.

One restaurant had a wheelchair-accessible sign and automatic doors, but a large lip in the doorway prevented Cynthia from getting through without Kevin tipping her chair.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Hooff said. “I definitely have to have somebody with me.”

Hooff says her biggest frustration is washroom doors, many of which are spring loaded and can’t be opened from a sitting position.

Sometimes Kevin can help, but on one occasion, a trip to poorly-designed bathroom stall bordered on humiliation.

“It's a handicap stall and from the toilet I couldn't reach the toilet paper,” she said. “It was way over there and I thought, what were they thinking?"

Building Code ‘barrier-free’ but lacks follow-up, advocate says

Section 3.8 of the Alberta Building Code spells out how all new construction in the province must accommodate people with disabilities.

The accompanying Barrier-Free Design Guide is 136 pages long and is supposed to give even more help to developers and architects.

But Ray Royer, a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, says the problems the Hooff encounter are common.

Royer was an Edmonton firefighter and amateur athlete before a bike accident left him a paraplegic.

“It’s not necessarily the building code that’s wrong,” Royer said. “It’s just that whoever interpreted it, didn’t interpret it properly.”

Royer says most builders and inspectors lack personal experience using a wheelchair.

“You need someone with the perspective of, ‘What does a handicapped person need?’ Someone who’s either walked the walk or done the mile or who deals with people with disabilities and then they’ll say, ‘This is not right. This does not meet code.’”

Even if an accessible facility is well-constructed, the code doesn’t require continued maintenance or inspections to ensure it continues to be accessible.

Royer says that is a stark contrast with other safety codes.

“I was a firefighter for the city for 30 years and we have the fire code,“ Royer said.

“Buildings get inspected every year. Extinguishers have to be maintained … sprinkler systems have to monitored and checked.  And if these things aren’t in place then there’s repercussions … fines. Well, this just does not happen with accessibility. There are just no repercussions.”

The Alberta Committee for Citizens with Disabilities is pushing the province to change that.

“We think that needs to be included in the building code,” said Bev Matthiessen, executive director of the Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities.

“There has to be an expectation that there is enforcement and there has to be some penalty.”

No accessibility champion in election

Go Public asked the three perceived front-runners in the Edmonton mayoral race what they would do about designated accessible public spaces that fall short.

“One of the big challenges is obviously just the condition of our streets,“ said Kerry Diotte.

“I hear from people with disabilities all the time. You hit a big hole in the road and you’re not going anywhere, same with sidewalks.”

Diotte suggested people call 311 if they have problems on city property and the business owner if it’s private property.

“I think that people mean well in business, they want customers to all be happy, so just bring it up,” he said.

Neither Don Iveson nor Karen Leibovici offered an opinion.

Kevin Hooff says his wife has to be approved by a doctor before she can have a pass for a handicapped parking spot. He says business owners should have to pass a test too.

“People can put up a sign anywhere and say it's handicapped-accessible, but it's not. In order to have that, maybe somebody have to come and inspect it and say, 'Yep, it warrants a sign and here's your sign.”