Sunshine brings sweet respite: barriers to accessibility in Halifax

HALIFAX – This unprecedented spring sunshine has brought Halifax city dwellers out from our respective hovels and into the urban landscape. The warm weather has ushered in a sense of freedom and mobility, although perhaps for some more than others.

For persons with disabilities, winter in Halifax represents being caged. The snow and ice, the inaccessible city infrastructure, and the limited availability of public transit options can make one a prisoner in their own home.

For instance, if a person has a physical disability impeding them from climbing stairs, their access to Metro Transit buses is seriously limited. Of all the 52 different bus routes offered by Halifax Metro Transit, only 19 of those offer Accessible Low-Floor (ALF) buses. The absurdity of offering limited public transit options to those persons who most need mobility assistance is a serious oversight.

Should someone need to travel to a destination not serviced by the ALF buses, the alternative is the Access-A-Bus service. Access-A-Bus is a fleet of fully accessible vehicles which offer door-to-door transportation for persons with cognitive or physical disabilities that inhibit them from riding conventional city buses.

The service, while necessary, is riddled with inefficiencies. It is requested that any ride be booked up to eight days in advance; in the case of an unexpected trip it can be next to impossible to secure a ride. While same-day bookings are an option, they can be flatly refused if others have booked the vehicles in advance. And even if a person is taking the time to make the advanced request, due to the limited number of vehicles and the first-come, first-serve basis the system works under they’re not guaranteed a ride. So, persons with disabilities are being forced to pre-plan every day-to-day activity, from picking up milk to getting to the doctor.

Not only does the Access-A-Bus service require an excessive amount of pre-planning, it also makes demands which are often hard for persons with disabilities to meet. For instance, users are expected to be ready and waiting for their ride five minutes in advance. (The difficulties of getting out the door in a timely fashion can only be really understood if you have ever experienced any kind of mobility impairment.) They are also expected to have their sidewalks and steps clear of snow. Should the conditions not be clear enough, the driver has the right to refuse the pick-up. Lastly, users are only allowed to bring parcels and packages onto the bus if they are capable of securing and handling them without assistance. According to the Access-A-Bus user guide, the accessible buses are not meant to transport large amounts of groceries. This means that if a person with a disability has to acquire more groceries than they can carry on their person by themselves they must find an alternative mode of transportation.

A useful supplement to Access-A-Bus and ALF services could be an accessible taxi cab service, such as the Fredericton’s Brunswick Accessible Taxi. The ‘BAT mobile’ accommodates individuals with disabilities in Fredericton, Oromocto, New Maryland, and surrounding areas. It does not require users to book rides days in advance, and the taxi fares are supplemented by the Province for those who are financially disadvantaged.

Should a person with a disability decide to forgo those services offered by Metro Transit and brave the streets, they are faced with what for an able-bodied person is the equivalent of mountain climbing. Because the city requires residents to take their own initiative in clearing their front walkway, many areas remain snow-covered. While there is a fine for not clearing one’s sidewalk within 6-12 hours of a snowfall, it would seem that the bylaw is not strictly enforced, considering the frequently poor conditions. This also means that at crosswalks where the sidewalk meets the road, snow builds into huge banks, barring pedestrians from easily crossing the street. Scaling the brown-white ice drifts just to get from one side of the road to the other is enough to make a person want to stay inside indefinitely.

While the melting snow has made the streets traversable — wheels can roll without impediment and short distances are more easily covered — the bus services still leave a lot to be desired, and flights of stairs still complicate entrance to many of Halifax’s shops and restaurants. The sunshine makes everything a bit more liveable, but in an ideal world, citizens could easily circumnavigate the city surface, no matter the weather.

photo by Victor Stegemann, member of the Spacing Atlantic flickr pool