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B.C. blind woman awarded $35,000 due to traffic circles and bike lanes

Tribunal says Maple Ridge failed to consider needs of disabled in roadwork, orders changes
Maria Kovacs had a successful human rights complaint against the City of Maple Ridge over accessibility for visually impaired people. (The News files)

A blind woman from Maple Ridge has partially won a BC Human Rights Tribunal case against the City of Maple Ridge.

Maria Kovacs, who was 72 at the time of the hearing in January, first made her complaint to the tribunal in August of 2018. She claimed that as a blind person, who uses a guide dog, she was not able to safely navigate her Maple Ridge neighbourhood due to intersection changes that included traffic circles and bike lanes that did not take the visually impaired into account.

READ ALSO: Blind woman takes City of Maple Ridge to B.C. Humans Rights Tribunal

On Oct. 13, the Tribunal ruled the city should pay Kovacs $35,000, for “injury to her dignity,” and make changes at one intersection.

Kovacs’ case argued the city discriminated against her when it created barriers for her at three areas:

• Dewdney Trunk Road and 203 Avenue, including the pedestrian crossings at the intersection and a northbound bus stop on 203 Avenue, immediately north of Dewdney Trunk Road

• Creston Avenue and 123 Street

• Two roundabouts at 232 Street at 132 Avenue. The two roundabouts are separated by a bridge over the North Alouette River.

Her complaints included unsafe road crossings, potential conflicts with cyclists, limited space for pedestrians, and lanes marked by lines she cannot detect.

In making her case, Kovacs described being told to “stop” by someone who saw her walking into vehicle traffic on 203rd Avenue. She also talked about almost being hit by a car.

Kovacs argued the city did not accommodate her disability in the design of these intersections, and she could no longer navigate them safely.

She had suffered retinal detachment in 1990, has no perception of light, and is totally blind. She walks daily, using a white cane and a guide dog, and using local transit. She visits friends, attends church events, and was a deacon in her church. She also volunteers, and was regularly on the city’s Municipal Advisory Committee on Accessibility and Inclusiveness. In 2022, she received the Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee Award from the federal government for her involvement in accessibility advocacy.

The city justified its work, and the ruling noted: “Generally, the city says it relied on provincial and Canadian standards and guidelines and on expert consultants it retained for the designs in the three areas.”

Tribunal member Jessica Derynck found the city had breached the code with its reconstruction at Dewdney Trunk Road and 203rd Street, and dismissed the other areas of complaint.

“I find that the city discriminated against Ms. Kovacs based on her disability in the area of DTR/203,” she wrote. “The lack of tactile alignment or directional information at the intersection, and the need to navigate through a multi-use area where there may be two-way bicycle traffic to use the bus stop, create barriers for Ms. Kovacs. The city has failed to establish that it could not have reasonably accommodated her without undue hardship.”

Kovacs had two friends, including one who is legally blind, testify about their experiences as a pedestrian, and their knowledge of the impacts on the issues on Kovacs.

There was also evidence from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and Robert Emerson gave expert evidence. He is a professor in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University, and has conducted research into navigation and travel of people who are blind or visually impaired for over 25 years.

The city argued his evidence should have no weight, because he did not visit in person, but only took a video tour of the areas.

The city offered evidence from its transportation manager Mark Halpin and manager of engineering services David Pollock. The city also introduced expert evidence from Jan Voss, president and founder of Creative Transportation Solutions Ltd., and an engineer of 33 years.

“I am happy with what happened,” Kovacs told The News, noting the intersection that is closest to her home, which she uses most often, will be made safer.

She declined further comment until she learns whether the city plans to appeal the decision.

“The city is reviewing the ruling and is committed to building infrastructure that serves the needs of the widest range of people of all ages and abilities while balancing complex and competing interests, technical issues, and financial capacity,” said a statement signed by Pardeep Purewal, the city senior manager of corporate communications.

She noted that out of four locations at issue in the complaint, the Tribunal ordered minor modifications at only one location.

“The city has made a number of enhancements to this intersection over the past several years to improve accessibility for residents. The city follows accepted rules, guidelines, and best practices in B.C. and Canada to ensure consistency in approaches across the region so that visually impaired citizens are provided with facilities that meet the circumstances and standards that they are taught to navigate and are familiar with using.”

In addition to seeking changes to city infrastructure, Kovacs sought $60,000 as compensation, as well as an additional $5,554 for expenses, but was awarded $35,000, noted Purewal.

The complaint was filed in August of 2018 and the hearing was held on various dates through October and November 2022, as well as in January 2023.

“While the case worked its way through BC Human Rights Tribunal the city continued to make modifications to the areas noted in the original complaint and to proactively apply lessons learned in other areas of the city,” Purewal said.

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Neil Corbett

About the Author: Neil Corbett

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years, the past decade with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News.
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