ACCESSIBILITY 101

The last thing I had on my mind yesterday, as I went to the mall to help sell tickets for a fund raising initiative for the local CCB (Canadian Council for the Blind), was that I would find myself donning  my ‘Accessibility’ advocacy hat (the one that puts my mouth in gear and finds me writing, phoning… and blogging).  The Halifax Shopping Centre is managed by a group called Vic 20 retail. The head of this little empire, Blaize Morrison  is the elusive fella who I have left messages for in the past, but never spoken to directly.  I have tried unsuccessfully to reach him to complain about the mall renovations which lasted eight months and created great hardship for people with disabilities.  Opal and I  entered the mall at 8:45 and the place was very quiet, as stores do not open until 9:30.  My plan was to get a snack in the upper level food court and then go to the community booth to help my friend set up.  Opal’s feet were caked with salt, so that necessitated a trip to the washroom before going up to buy my snack.  We were  just 7 meters inside the mall, when she stopped. Hmm, I wondered.  I slid my foot forward and encountered some sort of obstacle.  It was a fixed beam-like thing, almost two inches high and six inches wide. I slid my foot between the floor and this obstacle, and found that it ran quite a width.  I praised Opal for finding it and asked her “forward”, and we gracefully stepped over it and moved on down the hall in search of the washroom.  Eventually, we navigated up to the food court.  These places aren’t my idea of dining options, but I had a Tim’s card in my pocket, with a credit balance that would pay for a bagel and a cup of tea. Opal dazzled all the sleepyheads at Tim Horton’s with her clever ability to “find the queue” and “counter”… Snack items in hand, we swung around and headed for the area of the elevator. When we reached the end of the food court area, a woman said, “Watch out for that thing on the floor, dear”.   I thanked her even though I know Opal would find it.  She did and we safely wandered off.   By the time we found the lift, I was thinking about these obstacles, and that a trip to customer service might be in order. We greeted Alice who had set up the display in the ‘community box’. Opal lay dutifully, hopefully attracting some ticket sales with her stunning looks (or so Alice hoped).  Along came Mary. She was being guided by a stranger that had been drafted into assistance near the entrance of the mall.   Mary said that  she was lucky her white cane found this “big board” on the floor.  That was it. I  went to customer service and asked why there are dangerous obstacles on the floor, on this busy Easter Saturday?  I was told that it probably has something to do with “Easter events…wires or something… just temporary”.  I asked  to speak to a management person.  I was told that there no management employees worked on weekends. I told the customer service woman that the mall is liable for injuries to shoppers. I ranted a bit about accessibility, barriers, public safety, lack of consideration for people who are blind or partially sighted… I heard her snap her gum and offer a kid a paper bunny hat.  Once back in the booth,  I learned that Susan had arrived. She told me that she “just tripped over this obstacle and hurt my knee and hand. The security guard was nice and all that, but what are those dangerous things doing there?”.  I hauled Susan back to customer service with me. Opal sighs. I hear her thinking, ‘mum is on another mission’.  We lodged a complaint, and demanded that sufficient security be posted to warn people (even though it will be too crowded to effectively warn everyone with all the frenzy and the Easter shoppers).  The security guard was summoned.  I gave him the accessibility schpeel.  He called the manager of security.  Lovely B.J. arrived and informed me that there are six locations in the mall with these strips covering a floor joint renovation project.  She was obviously feeling a bit embarrassed about this whole mess.  I ran with it:  pointing out the issue of public safety. I  told her that while the mall may find it economically advantageous to start this work in six areas, they have a responsibility to maintain accessibility standards.  Doing construction projects in one secure area at a time, would have been preferable. Now that it is Easter Saturday, and there is no management staff, and the crowds are streaming in, I suggested to her that it will be a miracle if no one is seriously injured by day’s end.  She agreed that even sighted people would be in danger, as most would not notice the obstacles despite markings with yellow tape.   I also pointed out liability to the public, and that I had advised my friend to see her physician on Monday. I told her, that as president of the Halifax chapter of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, one of my roles is to address issues of accessibility.  I remarked how inconvenient it had been for people in wheelchairs, seniors, people with strollers,  and guide dog handlers, when the lower floor washrooms were closed for six months due to renovation delays and everyone was forced to travel to the upper level.  “Yes, but look how accessible the new ones are” she said.  I laughed at B. J.’s remark.  I explain that while they (the mall designers and management) may have run around measuring and meeting wheelchair standards and codes, they did not really have an interest in creating an ACCESSIBLE  environment.  Mary told her that by using one (off white) colour tile design from floor to ceiling in the long tube-like hall to the washrooms AND low incandescent spot lighting, they turned it into a partially sighted persons nightmare. They had not made any attempt to consider vital factors such as contrast, lighting, and texture.  I added that the automatic flushing toilets, auto-start one-temperature sinks, and auto dispense paper towel were a gimmick that no one needed and that money and effort should have been spent on designing an accessible space.  They used an open door concept, which makes it very hard to determine where the ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ begin and end.  The signage is not tactile, large print, or Braille.   I pointed out that there is no shortage of guidelines, checklists, design notes, accessibility resources and studies available to ‘professionals’ who design these public spaces.  B.J. and I exchanged contact information and she told me that she would be calling Mr. Morrison immediately.   Later, on my way out of the mall,  B.J. was at the obstacle with a team of security guards, trying to prevent sighted and able bodied people from tripping.  She yelled at me, “there’s an obstacle ahead…..and I’m on the phone to the construction company manager…”  I smiled as Opal stopped long enough to allow me to find the beam. We moved out and headed home.

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