Disability groups file human rights complaint over Beacon Hill road access

Multiple groups representing people with mobility challenges have filed a human rights complaint against the City of Victoria over vehicle access in Beacon Hill Park.

Susan Simmons, president of the MS Wellness Centre — one of the groups involved in filing the complaint — said they don’t actually want to take the issue to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, but they are fighting to reopen at least one road in the park that would allow people to drive to a parking lot near the children’s playground.

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The road, Arbutus Way, enters the park from Southgate Street, includes a small parking lot near the playground and connects to other roads that are closed.

“This is the road that is really critical for a certain segment of the population because it gives them access to a number of amenities,” said Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis and is an advocate for people with limited mobility. Simmons said while she is still able to use the entire park, she is advocating on behalf of others whose access is limited.

While there are other lots in the park as well as street parking on the perimeter, those options do not bring people who can only walk very short distances due to physical limitations close enough to access several popular amenities, such as the playground and water park, Goodacre Lake and a basketball court with a flat surface sometimes used for fitness classes, Simmons said.

The city initially closed all roads in Beacon Hill to vehicles last year to facilitate more space for physical distancing during the pandemic. They have since reopened some roads to motor vehicles, but have declined to reopen Arbutus Way and ­Chestnut Row, which together would create a cut-through route.

Councillors opposed have discussed concerns about road safety for pedestrians and cyclists and increased enjoyment of the park with the absence of vehicles in some areas.

Councillors recently voted to reopen Bridge Way to allow access by vehicle to a main washroom with two to three accessible parking spots and a pedestrian unloading zone.

Once opened, people would be able to drive to the washroom, and use one of the parking spots or turn around and exit. City staff are in the process of determining the best way to facilitate two-way driving on the road that was previously only one direction.

They said in a presentation to councillors last week it would require removing a path for people on foot and on bikes.

There would likely be low interactions between pedestrians and vehicles, but the removal of the designated multi-use path would decrease comfort for people walking and cycling, staff said.

Simmons said the result of the design is a road that only leads to a washroom. “I don’t know anybody in Victoria that has a physical disability that would specifically drive to Beacon Hill Park to go to the washroom.”

Coun. Stephen Andrew has repeatedly brought the issue to council in an unsuccessful attempt to reopen all roads.

“It’s nothing to do with cars actually. It has to do with the people inside the cars, and a lot of seniors, and a lot of people within the disability community have contacted me and said, ‘You know this is just not fair. We don’t get to enjoy the park,’ ” Andrew said. “I do see it as a human rights issue, not an issue of reducing traffic in the park.”

Mayor Lisa Helps declined to comment because of the human rights complaint.

Joanne Neubauer, president of the Action Committee of People with Disabilities, agreed the planned opening of Bridge Way is not adequate.

“I really don’t think they are thinking about people who, you know your car is your legs. In order to be able to actually enjoy the park, you kind of need to be able to drive around it a little bit.”

While she is hearing complaints about lack of access, Neubauer said there are some people with disabilities saying they like the road closures because they prefer not to deal with motor traffic.

Aleem Bharmal, a lawyer with the B.C. Human Rights Clinic, said those advocating for increased access by vehicle in the park have a potential human rights argument, although he couldn’t speculate on the strength of the argument. “If the park is not accessible, or practically accessible for some individuals because of their disabilities, then that’s a potential human rights violation,” said Bharmal, who is not involved with the complaint filed.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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