Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's trail system isn't a smooth ride for people with mobility issues

Amy Warren grew up with a love for hiking: hitting the trails and enjoying what the great outdoors in Newfoundland and Labrador has to offer.

St. John's woman highlights accessibility issues she faces daily

Amy Warren, Gary Bruce and Maria Bruce love getting out into the wilderness as a family. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Amy Warren grew up with a fondness for hiking: hitting the trails and enjoying what the great outdoors in Newfoundland and Labrador has to offer. 

While her love hasn't diminished at all, her ability to take advantage of it has.

On a crisp fall day her husband, Gary Bruce, helps get her wheelchair from the trunk of their car and bring it to the passenger side to help his longtime partner into her seat.

Armed with her coffee and husband's hand in hers, she rolls onto a crushed stone trail while her nine-year-old daughter, Maria, runs up ahead — something Warren says she loved doing at that age.

It's family activity that happens on trails from Labrador City to St. John's, but for Warren's family even a simple Saturday hike presents challenges.

"We want it to be more normal that people like us want to be in these spaces, and we would like more spaces for everyone rather than trying to fit us in already designed spaces," she said.

Design spaces for us all.- Amy Warren

A lifelong chronic illness forced Warren to start relying on mobility devices to get around for a decade until she made the move into a wheelchair about a year and a half ago

Modifying trail design has been a contentious issue in St. John's for quite some time. The City of St. John's recently announced a bike plan that would see part of the Kelly's Brook trail widened and paved for shared use. 

It's certainly something Warren would love to use for walks with Gary and Maria; right now they have to drive from the east end of St. John's to Conception Bay South to use the Manuels River trail system.

"The widened trails have made a big difference, that's what we've noticed. We all have enough space to get around," she said.

People passing by say hi and Warren gets a little excited when someone walking a dog goes past. Maria prances on ahead, her Dutch braids bouncing up and down, stopping for her mom whenever Warren finds a great spot for a photo. 

It's just a simple snap but not everything about those photos is easy. 

Finding a trail for the family of three, with a wheelchair, is just one of many challenges Warren faces every day. 

"I think there is a misconception that accessibility has come a long way," she said.

"When you are using a wheelchair for your way of getting around, you realize pretty quickly that the spaces we have in our environment, our city, our province are not really akin to be able to move around freely."

Warren has been relying on mobility aids for about a decade and is learning how things just are as accessible as they should be. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

It's sometimes those simple things that seem to cause problems for Warren, like heavy doors that don't have an automatic opener; lifting a heaving door can cause her pain. 

Sometimes accessible parking spaces aren't ideally located. Or there are aging stairs and no ramps. 

When nature calls, she gets anxious. 

"Getting to a bathroom that you know you can turn around in and actually use the washroom facilities is one thing I panic about daily. It stops me from going out sometimes because it is just too difficult to worry about," she said.

Shopping comes with its own challenges as well. Aisles in retail stores sometimes aren't big enough for wheelchairs. 

"I feel like I am in the way all the time," said Warren. "There is a bit of panic when you see someone coming down a small aisle that maybe you are going to hit them or something."

That makes simple shopping trips with her daughter — an activity heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic — a lot harder than they should be.

Sometimes people are overly dramatic, Warren said, about her taking up space in a grocery store aisle.

"It makes it really hard to even want to be out in public sometimes because you sort of feel that spaces are not meant for you. That can be a difficult pill to swallow when you just want a bit of freedom and you want to live life with your family." 

While it slows her down a little — and she definitely doesn't like — it's an inconvenience she's getting used to.

But something she can't get used to is when people are mean and call her names; it doesn't happen all the time, she said, but it's upsetting it happens at all.

WATCH: Amy Warren tells Jeremy Eaton why she is passionate about access to local trails: 

Making trails more accessible 

CBC News Newfoundland

6 months ago
4:02
Amy Warren has had to use mobility aids because of a chronic illness, but still likes to be active. She tells the CBC's Jeremy Eaton why trails in St. John's should be more accessible.  4:02

Warren said people have called her a 'faker' for using mobility scooters. It strikes at her core beliefs that someone would think she's faking a disability that has such a massive impact on her life, she said.

However, she said it gets worse than that.

"You get sworn at," Warren said.

While she has taught herself to put dark shades on her eyes and ignore public comments, she said, she's a grown woman; it's when people make rude comments in front of her daughter that she's most uncomfortable.

"I've been called 'disgusting' in front of my daughter and she had to ask her mom, 'Why did that person call you disgusting?" Warren said, fighting back tears. 

Maria, 9, says her mom is just as good, or better, than anyone else's. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

When she saw complaints on social media about the possibility of a portion of paved trails in her hometown, Warren felt it was time for her to speak out.

"The big concern with accessibility is when people say things like trails becoming accessible are going to take away from our natural environment. You're assuming that making it accessible makes it worse for the environment than it's already been.… These are people-made trails," she said.

"These [are] trails where the damage has already been done and yet the environment argument is going to be put on the back of disabled people."

Warren says all she wants is for families like hers to be taken into consideration. She knows speaking publicly will result in some backlash, but she felt she couldn't sit back and say nothing. 

"We had a conversation as a family whether this was going to be worth it because we have been pretty private, and ultimately we wanted to make a difference," she said.

"We thought maybe this would make a difference."

Warren hopes her family's story offers up a voice often left out of these kinds of conversations. 

"We are just a family trying to do the other things that families do." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

now