Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

Steep ramps, inaccessible washrooms: Can we do it better?

From inaccessible public washrooms to ramps that can be prohibitively steep, people with mobility issues give a taste of the barriers they face daily.

CBC News invited people who live with mobility issues to show us what their daily lives are like

Nancy Reid, who uses a manual wheelchair, works her way up the long ramp that will take her into Mile One Centre in St. John's. (John Pike/CBC)

It's sunny and Nancy Reid is breathing heavily, but it's not because of the warm weather.

She's trying to navigate the long ramp to the entrance of Mile One Centre in St. John's.

CBC News invited Reid and several others who live with mobility issues to show us what their day-to-day lives are like, sometimes using hidden cameras to capture their experiences.

Reid has strong arms, but they work overtime, trying to move her wheelchair forward.

"This is very steep. Just got to brake a second," she said. 

Finally, she gets to the top. 

"OK," she sighed. "My arms are burning."

Reid needs to take a break before she can get to the top of the steep ramp leading to Mile One Centre in St. John's. (John Pike/CBC)

But she's not so worried about herself.

"It's just way too steep. I'm not sure what the incline is, but that's well beyond anything that should be appropriate in any type of code," she said. 

"It's very near impossible for me, and I know that I've got good upper body strength. It would be certainly impossible for many, many chair users."

Stairs, doors and bumpy sidewalks

Minutes earlier, Reid had sized up the main floor of a St. John's hotel for accessibility.

The walkway leading to the main door of the lobby has a cut, or dip, in the curb to assist wheelchair users or people pushing baby strollers, but the incline was almost more than she could manage. 

It took two strenuous attempts. 

Once inside the lobby, three steps separated her from a bar.

Several metres away, there is a door that would have allowed her to get to the lower section of the lounge.

However, it didn't have an automatic opener, meaning some people who use wheelchairs wouldn't be able to open it by themselves.

Reid encounters stairs in a hotel lobby in St. John's. (John Pike/CBC)

Away from the hotel, wheeling on a city sidewalk, there are bricks laid down in an aesthetically pleasing pattern, making the surface bumpy and requiring a lot more effort to get over.

After a short time, Reid, who takes pride in her independence — a woman who loves to go out by herself on the water in the family boat — asks me to push her. 

Welcome to 15 minutes in Nancy Reid's life. 

I have a voice, and I can communicate some of those barriers to individuals so that we can try to change some of those barriers as the stepping stones to something better.- Nancy Reid

Still, she feels thankful to live in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

"There's real change moving in this province," she said.

"I have a voice, and I can communicate some of those barriers to individuals so that we can try to change some of those barriers as the stepping stones to something better."

Motorized wheelchairs weigh hundreds of pounds and are sensitive to every bump in asphalt or concrete. (CBC )

The barriers can be anywhere.

Even at St. Clare's Mercy Hospital in St. John's, Reid has to put extra muscle into getting up the ramp at the front entrance.

It's not enough to cause her concern, but two other wheelchair users who do not have as much upper-body strength told CBC News they have to zigzag down the ramp when they're leaving.

Otherwise, they say, they risk rolling out into the path of oncoming cars in the drop-off area, with no hope of being able to stop their chairs in time.

Washrooms a big problem

It's hard to forget what Ashley Martin-Hanlon, who uses a motorized wheelchair or power chair, contended with when she went to a popular, recently opened coffee shop.

There were no automatic door openers at the entrance.

In the washroom, the supposedly accessible stall was so tight she couldn't turn her chair around.

She tried to reach behind her chair to close the stall door, but it was impossible. 

Ashley Martin-Hanlon of St. John's says she is frustrated by new businesses that don't have accessible washrooms. (CBC)

When Martin-Hanlon tried to wash her hands, she could only stretch far enough to wet her fingertips. There was no way to reach the soap dispenser because a large garbage can prevented her from getting close enough.

"It frustrates me more when it's a relatively new development," she said.

"It's a new building. It's a trendy spot. It's exactly where someone my age and in my occupation should be hanging out or would be hanging out. But how can I do that when I can't even stop for the washroom?" 

In this photo taken with a hidden camera at a St. John's coffee shop, Ashley Martin-Hanlon demonstrates that, as a person who uses a wheelchair, she can only reach far enough to wet her fingertips. (CBC)

Martin-Hanlon says it's not just this place; it happens all the time.

Others have told CBC News that their dignity and privacy have been compromised in public washrooms.

They say they carry hand sanitizer as a matter of course because they're so used to not being able to reach the taps or the soap dispensers. 

"You always have to have a list in your head of where the good washrooms are, where the so-so washrooms are, and where going to the washroom is absolutely not going to happen," said Martin-Hanlon.

'I couldn't go into any of the stores'

CBC News has catalogued numerous other examples of accessibility gaps for people with mobility issues.

Many say downtown St. John's is off limits.

Yes, the steep hills are just a fact of life — but the city's on-street blue zone parking spots in the area don't have adjacent curb cuts.

Thomas Rogers attempts to feed a parking meter in St. John's, but as a person who uses a wheelchair, he is unable to see the screen of the blue zone meter. (CBC )

So when someone using a wheelchair gets out of a vehicle, they may have to wheel out on the road for several metres in order to find a dip in the curb that will allow them to get up onto the sidewalk. 

Every single store here or office building has a stone step or several stone steps in front of all [of] their entrances.- Thomas Rogers

Plus, for some reason some blue-zone meters in St. John's are taller than standard parking meters.

So when Thomas Rogers inserted a parking card, he couldn't see the screen. He had no way of knowing how much was on the meter — not that he could really get anywhere on that section of Duckworth Street.

"It was beautiful, but I couldn't go into any of the stores," he said. 

"Every single store here or office building has a stone step or several stone steps in front of all [of] their entrances." 

Thomas Rogers has difficulty getting into some stores in St. John's. (CBC)

Not just about getting around

This week, CBC News is exploring why accessibility is still such an impediment, including for people who are hard of hearing, deaf, blind, or partially sighted. 

You'll hear from a resident from Newfoundland's west coast about accessibility issues and attitudes in Corner Brook.

We're going to talk about the age-old abyss that is unemployment, and how inaccessible businesses send the message that they don't hire people with disabilities. 

We're going to touch on social isolation, which can extend to dating and romance.

We'll tell you why sex workers are advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. 

We take you to an office building that has incorporated many aspects of universal design, making it a welcoming environment for everyone. 

But mainly, we're going to focus on solutions: both the big picture and also ways each of us can make a difference. 

The goal of this series is about change, and making it happen. 

The Access Denied series will look not just at mobility issues, but at other issues such as employment, dating and social isolation, and ask what the solutions are. (CBC)

There have been significant improvements over the past 10 years, according to Ashley Martin-Hanlon, including the introduction of accessible taxis in metro St. John's, accessible buses, and a brand new paratransit system.

But she said there's still room for improvement.

"I think one of the traps we fall into as a society is looking at all the great things that we've done and not looking at the work we have left to do," she said.

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One.


Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.