The hazards that make Canberra a 'minefield' for blind pedestrians

Canberra is becoming a minefield for blind and low vision pedestrians and bureaucrats are either impotent or reluctant to act.

The Canberra Blind Society is fed up after years of privately lobbying and is calling on the ACT government to act, and for business owners and residents to be more considerate.

Canberra Blind Society vice-president Heather Fitzpatrick walks through East Row on Wednesday. The area is especially difficult for low vision people to navigate.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Canberra Blind Society vice-president Heather Fitzpatrick walks through East Row on Wednesday. The area is especially difficult for low vision people to navigate. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Vice-president Heather Fitzpatrick - who has retinitis pigmentosa - said walking through the city was becoming "more stressful than it needed to be".

"I'm sure all of us have instances where we've walked into something that we didn't expect to be there. It's disconcerting when you don't expect it," Mrs Fitzpatrick said.

She took The Canberra Times on a walkthrough of Civic to demonstrate some of the difficulties people were having getting around.

Mrs Fitzpatrick pointed to the bike racks that were placed outside the Blind Society’s offices at the Griffin Centre directly next to the accessible car parks as one of the inadvertent ways mobility had been compromised.

"It might look pretty, but hey I have bruises," she said.

Crossing the road near Bunda Street, she showed how people had been stealing the raised tactile domes that tell a blind person they are nearing an intersection.

She also pointed out a gap in the nearby garden rail that has caught a friend's cane and sent him flying into the garden bed. This problem was pointed out to City Services officials, but the gap is still there more than a year on.

And while people using those routes on a regular basis can adapt to those hazards, there are others that can present even more problems.

Garema Place is littered with sandwich boards spruiking everything from betting to massages - and they move to different places every day.

"It's a minefield," Mrs Fitzpatrick said.

Running her cane along buildings, Mrs Fitzpatrick encountered sandwich boards jutting out from doorways, poorly placed crates and portable racks. Many blind and low vision people use the edges of buildings as a shoreline to navigate through the city, and objects like this can trip them or force them to "wing it".

Mrs Fitzpatrick said East Row was also particularly difficult to traverse, with vegetable bins and sandwich boards in the narrow causeway.

While City Services officials can direct businesses to remove objects from public unleased land, they have no authority to remove items if they are under the awning of a business as it's considered private land.

East Row businesses fall into the latter category, but owners and managers were surprised and apologetic when told about the accessibility problems.

Owner of the East Row IGA Abdul Osman said the supermarket had made changes several years ago in response to concerns about the accessibility of the walkways, but would be open to making further changes if required.

He said he would seek a meeting with the Blind Society about the issue, and pointed to changes he'd made about liquor advertising as evidence that he took his obligations to the community seriously.

Clouston and Hall book store owner Tom Clouston also thought he was compliant but said he would make changes if he was not, while Tree Eighty3 cafe manager Maddie Ryan said she'd be more mindful in future about where she placed their sandwich board.

But while the accessibility issues were a surprise to most business owners, they should not be to the government.

The Blind Society has been lobbying the government since 2015 for a “continuous accessible path of travel” as defined by the Australian Human Rights Commission on all Canberra walkways.

Freedom of movement is enshrined in the ACT's human rights laws, although separate guidelines about minimum path widths have apparently expired. Minor paths must now be at least 1.5 metres wide, although this only applies to newly built walkways.

The group has met with government bureaucrats in the past who all expressed sympathy for their situation, but did nothing.

A spokeswoman for City Services Minister Chris Steel said government officials investigated any temporary restriction to path access, particularly in high pedestrian volume areas.

She also said they upgraded public spaces and pathways in two suburbs per year as part of the "age friendly" program an construction was currently under way on an accessible public space in front of the Sydney and Melbourne buildings.

"Canberra is an inclusive city and the ACT government is always interested in hearing from the community on how we can improve our public spaces to be more accessible," the minister's spokeswoman said.

Ms Fitzpatrick said she would like the government to educate businesses about accessibility and enforce the rules where applicable. She also urged residents to trim back their trees and vegetation to make it easier for people to get around their neighbourhoods.

"This is not just a blindness issue, it's an accessibility issue. As much as it affects low vision people, it also affects people in wheelchairs or with restricted mobility, or strollers," Ms Fitzpatrick said.