It’s a creative way to help boost business during the COVID-19 pandemic and to showcase what various downtown businesses in St. John’s have to offer.
But as residents flock to Water Street to check out the new pedestrian mall and enjoy the various restaurants, bars and shops, not everyone is getting that chance.
For people in wheelchairs, being there brings attention to what they believe is a big problem of lack of accessibility in the city.
“We noticed it was a trend,” Lisa Walters said Thursday, the day after she and a friend went to Water Street.
“Whether it was certain (shops), patios, bistro tables on sidewalks or clothing racks, there were lots of areas I just couldn’t get to in my chair due to lack of ramps or curb cut considerations.”
Walters said the first thing they noticed when they got there was that the accessible parking space they wanted to use was behind a barricade with no one around to let them through. They eventually found a spot and a city employee directed them in, but Walters ran into more problems.
When she got out of the car, she said, she immediately recognized that a huge portion of the sidewalk was blocked off by clothing racks, with no way around them.
The 31-year-old — who is originally from Marystown and has lived in St. John’s for many years — has had disabilities for the last five or six years as a result of a chronic illness that affects her joints, muscles and tendons. She’s gone from needing a cane occasionally, to crutches, to a rollator and now a wheelchair.
“Downtown went from being one of my favourite places to a spot in our city that just makes me sad because I feel so left out from everything happening down there,” Walters said.
A huge advocate for better wheelchair accessibility, she said inaccessibility in the city has been an issue long before the pedestrian mall. Between inaccessible storefronts, washrooms at the top of stairs, uneven sidewalks, terrible curb cuts and lack of accessible parking, she said downtown just feels “off limits” to her and so many other people with disabilities, including tourists.
Seeing Walters’ comments about the lack of accessibility on Water Street posted on her Facebook page, Access YYT, was enough to deter Paula Bowen from going down to see the pedestrian mall. Bowen, whose 15-year-old son, Brandon, is in a wheelchair, said it’s not worth the hassle if there are places he can’t get into.
“I was so disgusted and hurt. I won’t be wasting my time to bring (Brandon) there,” said Bowen, adding that the city should have consulted with the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities. “We avoid going to places like this. It’s too frustrating.
“Just placing a few accessible picnic tables and then say it’s accessible — sorry, but that’s not how it works.”
She said ramps should be installed on the curbs and business entrances.
But it’s not that easy, according to some business owners, who rent the historic buildings from landlords.
Randell Porter, who owns Island Designs, which doesn’t have wheelchair access, said he’s unable to make renovations to the building because he doesn’t own it. He said he hasn’t made requests to the owner to alter the entrance, but believes it would be costly.
Porter said his shop is spacious and has had many people in wheelchairs, wheeled walkers and strollers inside.
However, he sympathizes with those who are affected by inaccessibility to businesses.
“I can’t imagine what it feels like for people who feel they don’t have access to certain places,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t care.”
Walters said she understands sometimes businesses are at the mercy of their landlords, but action needs to be taken to address the issue once and for all.
“Clearly, it’s time for things to change,” she said. “We deserve the same access as everyone else.”