Wheel-About an eye-opening experience on what it’s like to get around with a disability in Duncan

One takes for granted such seemingly simple tasks as crossing the street and walking along sidewalks

There’s nothing easy about having a disability.

One takes for granted such seemingly simple tasks as crossing the street and walking along sidewalks, but for those with disabilities, these everyday activities are much more challenging than most realize.

Last week, I participated in the bi-annual Disability Wheel-About, hosted by the City of Duncan’s advisory committee on disability issues, and it was an eye-opening experience.

A group of 10 people participated, including myself, in a tour of the totem poles in downtown Duncan. We alternated between using electric-powered scooters, and walking around with glasses covered in electric tape to mimic blindness, while using a white cane to help manoeuvre through the streets.

 

I started on an electric scooter and, after receiving basic instructions on how to operate it, we headed off from the Cowichan Independent Living headquarters on First Street, down Canada Avenue towards the Cowichan Valley Museum.

The first thing I noticed was the limited amount of time you have to cross intersections.

Pedestrian traffic signals are not much of a challenge for most able-bodied people, but they certainly can be for those in wheelchairs and on scooters.

It should be said, however, that all the intersections we encountered on our downtown tour had curb cuts, which are areas where the curb is lowered to allow wheelchair access on and off the sidewalk.

But you have only a small amount of time to cross intersections before that flashing hand warns you that you have mere seconds left to complete the transit before a bunch of angry drivers begin honking for you to get out of their way.

I was at the end of the line to cross the intersection at Canada Avenue and Evans Street and was only halfway across when the traffic signal was warning there was just four seconds left before the light changed.

I began getting nervous and was paying more attention to the traffic signal and the grills of the cars that were mere inches in front on my nose to the right than the scooter in front of me.

That led to disaster when I rear ended the scooter and knocked off my front headlight and carrying basket.

Personally, I had never even heard of a scooter accident before, much less ever been involved in one, and I wondered what the motorists at the intersection were thinking when I quickly hopped off my damaged scooter and ran to check on the lady who was driving the scooter in front of me.

Fortunately, she was more amused by the situation than hurt.

 

Soon after that harrowing experience, I switched over to trying to manoeuvre my way through the streets as a blind person using a cane.

I was assisted with this by Brian Gage, a Duncan man who went blind in the 1980s after a shooting accident.

He showed me the proper use of the white cane that many blind people employ to help guide them when they walk.

Gage said to hold the cane directly in front of me and make short sweeps to the right and left as I walked to identify obstacles in the way.

I asked if he thought Duncan was adequately accessible for people with disabilities and he said he would like to see the whole city torn down and rebuilt again, this time with the blind and handicapped in mind.

But he did acknowledge the cut curbs in the downtown core for those in wheelchairs and scooters, and the audible crosswalk signals on many intersections for people who are visually impaired.

“The junction at Beverly Street and Canada Avenue, near Thrifty’s, really needs audible crosswalks and there’s too much signage on the traffic island there for blind people,” Gage said.

“I also have issues with sandwich boards on the sidewalks because they are moved around a lot and get in the way. Vinyl strips around some poles on the sidewalks would also be nice for when I occasionally walk into them.”

After taking instruction from Gage, I began walking down Kenneth Street waving my cane in front of me to detect objects in my path.

I found it very disconcerting to be completely blind and surrounded by people, traffic and a thousand other obstructions as I waved the cane in front of me, making my way slowly and cautiously down the street.

Gage had said that getting familiar with the area you walk around is very important, but it was all brand new to me and I was so nervous and tense that my hand holding the cane began to cramp up from grasping it so tightly.

Then, as if Gage had prophesied it, I smacked into a sandwich board and almost went down on the sidewalk.

But people are generally good, and a few came to my assistance, thinking I was really blind.

I wondered if any of the motorists who saw me drive into the scooter earlier had observed this new accident, and tried to figure out just what was going on.

Finally, after more than an hour of stumbling and bumbling about downtown with my cane, I found my way back to the Cowichan Independent Living headquarters with the help of colleagues, and talked to Duncan city councillor Sharon Jackson, one of the organizers of the event.

She said the intent of the wheel-about is to have average people participate and experience first-hand the challenges handicapped people have to go through on a daily basis.

“It’s a powerful experience,” Jackson said.

“We encourage everyone to do it.”

On June 6, Cowichan Independent Living will be celebrating Independent Living Across Canada Day.

It’s a day for showcasing Canadians living with disabilities who actively contribute in today’s world.

The organization will celebrate in Duncan by hosting a pancake breakfast at its office and resource centre on First Street from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

The breakfast will be followed by a demonstration of scooters and other mobility devices through downtown Duncan.

During the demonstrations the group will be handing out pamphlets and flyers to bring awareness of the organization’s Disability Resource Centre.

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