An empty bench at Victoria's Beacon Hill Park (photo: Susan Simmons)
By Spencer van Vloten
August 2nd, 2021
Disability groups in Victoria have filed a human rights complaint over a lack of access to Beacon Hill Park, in a battle with the city that has much at stake.
Located along the shore of the Juan de Fuca Strait, Beacon Hill Park was considered a ‘gem’ for Victoria’s disability community.
With an abundance of colourful flowerbeds, picturesque views of Goodacre Lake, and flat, open surfaces, Beacon Hill offered a wealth of amenities with a level of accessibility that few parks matched.
Disability groups held Qigong classes in the park, wheelchair users took their kids to the park’s playground, and people of all abilities and mobility levels could cross the medieval bridge and relax by the ponds.
But then the pandemic started, and things changed.
Just some of the areas that are no longer accessible to many people with disabilities (photos: Susan Simmons)
To encourage physical distancing, the City of Victoria closed all roads in Beacon Hill Park to vehicles.
One of these roads—Arbutus Way—had been the access point which allowed persons with disabilities to drive through the park, park their vehicle near most of the amenities, and then travel a short distance to them on foot or using a mobility device.
When Arbutus Way closed, much of the park became out of reach for persons with mobility limitations, who could no longer drive right up to those areas and would now have to cover long distances via foot or mobility device to reach the park’s main features.
Although frustrated by the closure, there was initially hope that it would be short-lived, and that access would return once the pandemic was under control and restrictions were eased.
But the closure dragged on. Months and months and more months went by, and when city council finally voted to the reopen roads in the park, they decided there would be an exception: most roads would open, but not Arbutus Way.
FEELING THE IMPACT
For members of Victoria’s disability community, the continued denial of access was felt hard.
Tara Moss, an author with complex regional pain syndrome, uses a cane, walker, and wheelchair to get around.
The closure of Arbutus Way left her unable to reach her favourite parts of the park independently, with the distance she had to travel following the closure proving overwhelming and exhausting.
For the MS Qigong, a group of persons with multiple sclerosis who practice the Chinese spiritual art of Qigong, the flat open surface they used in the park for classes was no longer an option.
Beacon Hill Park roads and pedestrian routes. Many of the roads remain closed, including Arbutus Way, which provides access to the heart of the park and leads to a parking lot near major amenities
And for Ben, a wheelchair user and father of 3 young boys aged 2, 4, and 6, the family trips to the park’s playground came to an end, with his adapted van unable to get close enough to the playground for him then access it in his wheelchair.
These were just some of the people whose access had been cut by the continued closure of Arbutus Way.
Many others expressed their displeasure through social media and in communication with the city, and as more people spoke up the pressure was building on city council to do something about it.
When the issue went back to council, opinions were split.
Councillors Stephen Andrew and Charlayne Thornton-Joe were among those in favour of reopening Arbutus Way. Andrew was particularly vocal, labelling the closure a human rights violation.
In a council meeting he stated ‘It’s ridiculous. That’s not allowed under BC human rights legislation. It’s preventing people from having the rights they’re entitled to.”
Two councillors in favour of keeping it closed were Ben Issit and Geoff Young. Issit, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, claimed that people with disabilities preferred to have the roads closed, to limit vehicles passing through. Concerns were also raised about the environmental impact of having the road open.
When debate ended and time came for a decision, the council ultimately voted in favour of keeping Arbutus Way closed.
Councillors Stephen Andrew and Charlayne Thornton-Joe (top) favoured reopening Arbutus Way; Councillors Ben Issit and Geoff Young (bottom) opposed it
Instead, a route would be reconfigured that wouldn’t give persons with disabilities access to all the amenities they used to have, but would give them access to a bathroom—if they did a U-turn at a certain spot.
Susan Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis and is the president of the MS Wellness Centre, was dumbfounded.
“Why drive to the park just to go to bathroom? That’s pretty much all someone with very limited mobility can do now using that route. All the talk of that one bathroom and the fixation on our toilet habits is so insulting”
Councillor Andrew, who had pushed for Arbutus Way to be reopened, was similarly displeased.
“This is basically a retelling of the ‘get to the back of the bus’ discrimination. It’s insulting, offensive and dehumanizing.”
“Dealing with the climate crisis is extremely important. But those who argue to keep the road closed aren’t considering this as a human rights issue and they aren’t engaging with the disabled community."
MORE THAN A PARK
For Tara Moss, Councillor Andrew's sentiments ring true: this is not simply about access to the park; it’s about human rights.
“The human rights of those with disabilities matter, and we shouldn’t be making previously accessible parks and amenities inaccessible, especially when so many public areas are already difficult or impossible to access.”
“Equal access to public parks should be a priority. I believe there are some fundamental misunderstandings about disability that are being shown in these decisions.”
In line with this reasoning, and foreshadowed by Councillor Andrew's earlier comments, a human rights complaint has now been filed against the city by a group of disability organizations.
Tara Moss (left; photo: Berndt Sellheim) and Susan Simmons (right) both want to see Beacon Hill Park become accessible
Although Susan Simmons’ organization the MS Wellness Centre was part of the group which made the complaint, she didn’t want it to come to that, and still hopes to collaborate with the city and broader community to find a solution that works for everyone.
“They should in good faith reopen the roads they closed. I’d also like to see a true coming together of the community about how to make parks accessible to everyone, recognizing that everyone—not just people with disabilities— benefits from increased access.”
“It’s tough to stand up and deal with issues like this. I’m tired and sick of fighting, but I have no choice.”
The fight for Beacon Hill Park continues, and with it the fight for accessibility and human rights.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to email@example.com!