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Paraplegic upset by absence of wheelchair ramp inside city council chambers
A Lower Lonsdale resident said he felt slighted at a City of North Vancouver council meeting on Oct. 7 when he was asked to speak from a "special table."
Ken, who didn't want his last name used, is a paraplegic and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Two Mondays ago the longtime North Van resident made the trek to city hall to attend his first council meeting.
During a public input period, Ken, who was parked at the back of the room, raised his hand to ask a question about the city's RCMP budget. Able-bodied people normally approach a table with a microphone at the front of the room.
But there is no wheelchair ramp in the new council chambers, which underwent a $600,000 extensive facelift this summer.
Mayor Darrell Mussatto, realizing Ken was in a wheelchair, directed him to a table outfitted with a microphone at the back of the room. Looking to make a point about inclusion and accessibility, Ken refused to budge.
So Mussatto offered to have a staff member bring him a portable microphone. Ken responded by asking the mayor why he couldn't ask his question like everyone else — at the front of the room.
"You can't at this point," Mussatto told him, adding a wheelchair ramp didn't structurally fit in with the new chamber design.
Ken eventually asked his question, but after the meeting expressed his frustration to The Outlook.
"Why wouldn't they make it accessible for us one percenters?" questioned Ken. "I want to go down there like everybody else — that's what I told the mayor."
City of North Van spokesperson Connie Rabold said the council chambers are wheelchair accessible. She explained there are two tables at the back of the room — one for the media and the other for people using a wheelchair.
"See that's exactly what we don't want," said Ken. "We want to be treated like everybody else. If people go down to the table in front where the mic is, then we want the opportunity to do the same — not a special table."
At the Oct. 7 meeting, there was no signage indicating the tables were to be reserved for those designations. And with both tables occupied, there was no appropriate area inside the council chambers for Ken to sit and watch the meeting.
He parked his wheelchair flush with the last row of bench seating, blocking one of the double doors. According to Ken, at best, the council chambers can accommodate one wheelchair — and most people in wheelchairs go to events in groups.
"At this point there is ample room for wheelchairs inside and outside the council chambers," maintained Rabold.
Outside the council chambers there is overflow seating with speakers and a large screen to view the proceedings.
As part of the modernization, a new audio and visual system — including two 90-inch flatscreen TVs — was installed. And the space was opened up more through the addition of a centre aisle. The recent upgrades are the first phase of the council chambers revamp.
"As with any renovation, there will be some elements that may need adjustment, and other changes that will need to go on a future 'to do' list," said Rabold.
She further explained that wheelchair accessibility to the lower part of the chamber was not included in this phase of the project because it requires a costly reconfiguration of the space. The room lacks the required grade for a wheelchair ramp. And a ramp would require railings which, as it stands, would cut off access to the benches in the gallery.
Plans to include a more wheelchair-accessible entry to the chamber will be included in 2014 capital budget discussions.
The Outlook contacted the North Shore Disability Resource Centre to ask if the city's council chambers were inclusive and accessible for people with a disability. Said Kim Miles, NSDRC director of residential services, in an email response:
“The NSDRC has not spoken to either party regarding this occurrence. We can say that every opportunity to participate in civic life should be an opportunity for all citizens."