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How do you find a bus stop if you are visually impaired? Rob Sleath discusses Access Awareness Day and accessibility on transit

How do you find a bus stop if you are visually impaired? Rob Sleath discusses Access Awareness Day and accessibility on transit

Rob Sleath, the chair of our Access Transit Users’ Advisory Committee
Rob Sleath, the chair of our Access Transit Users’ Advisory Committee

It’s Access Awareness Day on Saturday, June 5, so I thought we’d take some time this week to talk about accessibility—the issue has a lot more subtleties than you’d think!

To give us a bit of background, I spoke to Rob Sleath, who helps guide TransLink’s Access Transit accessibility strategy as chair of our Users’ Advisory Committee.

Rob kindly explained why Access Awareness Day is important, the challenges he faces on transit and beyond as a person with a visual impairment, and what people can do to help make their communities more accessible.

“It’s not my vision loss that is the disability,” Rob says. “It’s the environment around me. If you change the environment you minimize my disability.”

Why is Access Awareness Day important?

Well, the title of the day itself implies it all. The whole issue around Access Awareness Day is bringing focus onto different types of accessibilities and different kinds of needs.

When I first started working on accessibility, it was all about people with mobility aids. But the more I heard this word, make it “accessible,” I started to ask, “What exactly does that mean?” I quickly learned it’s about physical disabilities, but there are people out there with hidden disabilities: cognitive, sensory disabilities, and more. And that was my focus, to get the transit planners and transit management to recognize and develop systems that would be accessible and inclusive to everybody.

What challenges do you personally face on transit?

Rob in one of our SkyTrain Mark II vehicles.
Rob in one of our SkyTrain Mark II vehicles.

Bearing in mind that I have a sensory disability, one of my biggest challenges is access to information. And not just because of vision loss: many have a print disability, such as dyslexia. Access to information is a huge challenge.

The introduction of automated bus stop announcements has been an absolute godsend. For people who are blind or visually impaired, how do you know where you are? Especially if you’re on a bus with an operator who is busy, dealing with other passengers. Who’s the one with the problem? Not them, it’s me.

So those automated announcements are a huge step towards independence for those with vision loss. And we’d like to really make it clear that the announcements also help seniors, tourists, people with English as a second language.

As well, something as easy as finding a bus stop is also very difficult. You start to think about the bus stop at the corner of Broadway and Granville, we’ve all sort of been there. But if I say at the corner of Lynn Valley and another street, how would you find that?

I never thought about that. How do you find bus stops?

You guess. I know it sounds like a funny answer, but that’s really it. We do have orientation skills thanks to programs from the CNIB, and there is generally a pattern to of stops follow, but sometimes it’s not the case.

The poles are not always the same texture or design. In Richmond, some of the bus signs are attached to utility poles or lamp standards. There used to be a time when they used to use square wooden poles, and you’d tap those with a hand or white cane. But that doesn’t apply anymore. So it’s guesswork. Some people say, well, why don’t you ask someone for help? Well, sometimes there isn’t anyone around!

But things are coming along. Hansel Wang [one of TransLink’s planners] has been instrumental in developing a universally accessible bus stop standard. Not only for people with sensory disabilities, appropriate shelter, accommodation for people with mobility aids. Adequate sitting for those who need a place to sit down.

And it’s my understanding that they are going to build some pilot bus stop prototypes 10 or 12 and give them a test in the lower mainland. There will be tactile material on the sidewalk so people can see it. The pole will be colour contrasted with TL colours so you can distinguish from a no parking sign. I’ve stood beside no parking signs before and no buses have ever picked me up.

There will be tactile signage, possibly some Braille on there to make it easier to find. And if the pilot projects work we’ll see a couple of hundred of those in the region by my grandchildren’s time.

So what should people pay attention to during Access Awareness Day? What do you hope they take away from it?

Most importantly, I hope they see that people with disabilities do not choose to have a disability. Many of us recognize that when we’re using public transit, we are using a bit of extra space, but people can have some empathy and compassion. I’m not saying “sympathy,” because many of us just want understanding that this is our lot in life.

This is one thing too for operators. When you have someone boarding your bus, recognize that they’re people first. When you ask passengers to stand back, it’s not because you have to unload a wheelchair off, it’s because you’re letting a passenger off. For people with disabilities, they’ve gone through a lot to get to that bus stop in the morning. Someone in a wheelchair probably took one to two hours to get to that stop.

Could you talk a bit about accessibility challenges beyond transit?

I’m going to talk about this at the APTA conference [Rob will be presenting a session on accessibility next week], and I’m going to say this: It’s not my vision loss that is the disability. It’s the environment around me. If you change the environment you minimize my disability.

If you put a print menu in front of me I’m totally disabled. If you put a Braille menu in front of me, I’m totally independent. Whether it be transit, or accessible pedestrian signals, or audiobooks in the library. If you change that environment, vision loss becomes an inconvenience, not a disability.

So what can people do to help make their communities more accessible, or raise awareness around these issues?

My first thought is volunteering for various rehabilitation centres. They’re all really struggling right now. The BCPA, the CNIB, they could always use volunteer help—even if it’s only an hour a week, whatever people can spare.

But in terms of access, I think the best thing to do is if you encounter someone with a disability, don’t be afraid to go up and speak to them. Don’t be afraid about saying the wrong thing. You can never go wrong by saying “Can I assist you?,” not “Can I help you?” Go up and ask them. That can open a door and people with disabilities really appreciate it. People have a tendency to walk around you when you have a disability. I think they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. But you might just be able to assist someone, or it might just lead to a pleasant conversation.

How long have you been working to improve transit accessibility?

The sign dedicated to Rob and three others at Vancouver Transit Centre!
The sign dedicated to Rob and three others at Vancouver Transit Centre!

I’ve volunteered for years now, back when it was still BC Transit. I’ve even got my own bus stop at Vancouver Transit Centre. It’s a mock bus stop used for training, and they had a dedication ceremony for four of us who do a disability awareness seminar for the operators.

I’ve been doing it for about 10 years, and we essentially give about a 1.5 hour seminar at the training centre. We take operators into the yard and we blindfold them and make them find their way along the side of the bus to the front door and get them to get seated. And with the blindfolds on we take them around the city and stop, and ask them where they are.

They quickly get the idea and start to understand. By knowing where you are on the bus, it gives you greater confidence, instead of just sitting and hoping that the driver is going to remember your stop. I always say to them that I haven’t met one of you yet that can turn a trolley around on Seymour Street if you’ve missed the stop.

We let them know about what to do when someone visually impaired is boarding. People don’t think about that: they don’t realize you have to give verbal cues. If you point, or if you say “That seat’s free over there,” it doesn’t work.

But I’m happy that TransLink is going to focus on this even for one day. I really have to take my hat off to TransLink over the years. They’ve done an admirable job making a commitment to accessible transit. TransLink has been around for 10 years now, and there’s still a long way to go but it’s pretty darned good.

Many thanks, Rob!