The invisible touch

When most of us go for a walk, we walk with the privilege of sight. It is a privilege that not everyone walks with.

For Randy Firth, head of Communication, Education and Public Issues with the Toronto District Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB) walking this city's public space is a source of daily frustration. Wet cement, inaccessible traffic signs, silent TTC rides, unrepaired sidewalks, bicycles, mutliple cycle lights (advance greens), sharpened edges of transit maps, and a host of other barriers turn city streets into daily obstacle courses for the visually impaired. Firth states that one constant annoyance comes from privately owned businesses putting up sandwich boards in the middle of the road without thinking. These A-frames are quite literally a slap in the face for Toronto's blind community (see article on page 27).

The Toronto Advocacy Committee with the CNIB has been working to change this by lobbying the city to create more accessible public spaces for the blind. Craig Nichol, a member of the committee, states that bureaucracy often stands in the way of the city fulfilling its obligations under the Ontario Disabilities Act. "If you bring something to the city once … they want you to come back and elaborate on the issues, but you have to wait a long time."

Nicol says that along with the amount of time it takes for the city to deal with these issues, attitudes towards people with disabilities, and the nature of their activism, also plays a part in the problem. "The disability community is not as vocal as other communities," says Nichol. "We don't have the same economic pull or visibility as other groups. Within the disability community a lot of people don't have the inclination, time or resources to get involved. Often times their health dictates what they can do." Visually impaired people also face similar obstacles in mounting public protests. "In terms of protest, the idea of crowds poses a problem for the visually impaired," says Nichol. "You end up hitting people with your cane."

Trouble also arises when one segment of the disability community is used to represent the whole. Nicol points to how the city installed ramps due to demands made by one group of people with disabilities. However, these ramps make it hard for the visually impaired to negotiate sidewalks. "The city put this in place without thinking and to appease this one group."

Boyd Hipfner currently sits as the visually impaired representative on the Toronto Pedestrian Committee. This committee makes recommendations within the city's Works and Emergency Services Department which are then sent to City Council for approval. Hipfner says that "to the extent that the committee is made aware [of visually impaired issues] they are largely sympathetic." This committee is also responsible for getting the audible crossing signals installed at some Toronto intersections.

Hipfner maintains there is not a lot of conflict with people with other disabliities. He points to the approved recommendation that requires a 12mm rise on sidewalk ramps that does not restrict wheelchairs yet is "cane detectable" as evidence of this cooperation. Contractors are currently supposed to adhere to these specifications, but Hipfner says "they don't always follow the code."

In order to prevent situations where one solution causes another problem, Nichol advocates for the creation of diverse committees and advocacy groups that are made up of people with different disabilities, "so that our efforts don't cancel each other out." The final item on his wish list is to see more able-bodied citizens taking an interest in issues that affect the visually impaired and other groups of citizens with disabilities and have the general profile of the pedestrian raised in the mass media more. "I remember when the weather was really bad here. I was listening to the radio and they were interviewing people about what they were wearing to keep warm. There are so many more issues that visually impaired people face in these conditions that get no air time." Hipfner would like to see the City adopt the CNIB Advocacy Committee's recommendation that all sidewalks on major streets have a 1.8 metre-wide unimpeded path. This would benefit both the visually impaired and people using wheelchairs (and in fact everyone else). "If we have that, we don't care what else they put on the sidewalk." The key is not to have people zigzag around obstacles.

One of the luxuries of seeing lies in being seen. If you can see you are recognized and regarded as a citizen. The street signs have been designed for you. This magazine has been designed for you. But there are many visually impaired people whose stories remain invisible. The maps they must make in their minds to get from point A to point B do not make official accounts. To see them as owners of public space might mean seeing the city through new eyes.