This is part 1 of a series about Milena Khazanavicius, a Halifax woman who is blind and advocates to make the city and province more accessible to people who are blind and partially sighted. In this article, we look at Khazanavicius’s struggle to make sidewalks around construction sites safer for herself and other pedestrians.
Milena Khazanavicius has been fighting with the HRM for safety on city sidewalks for so long she can’t remember the first time it was an issue.
She said she can remember the story that made the headlines, though. It was this one reported by the Examiner in September 2020. Then, Khazanavicius was advocating for the city to fix a guy-wire on Young Street because it was too low to the sidewalk and dangerous for pedestrians who are blind and partially sighted like her (a yellow sleeve was placed over the wire, but Khazanavicius said it was still too low and dangerous).
The Examiner spoke with Khazanavicius on the issue of accessibility and sidewalks again in March 2021. She told Zane Woodford about a barrier she faced at the corner of North and Oxford streets when she was out walking with her guide dog Louis.
Khazanavicius waited until traffic was moving parallel, and then gave Louis the command to cross the street.
“We go forward, we cross Oxford, smack dab into the fence,” Khazanavicius said. “That fence is taking up the entire sidewalk, including the curb.”
Louis wanted to turn around, but Khazanavicius kept moving forward, feeling the fence along North Street hoping there’d be somewhere for them to get up onto the sidewalk.
Khazanavicius was left with no place to go, stranded in a busy intersection — not “freaking out,” but “highly concerned.”
And this past October, Khazanavicius was injured as she walked through a construction site on Cork Street. A construction sign, one of those large orange diamond-shaped ones, was on the sidewalk. Khazanavicius was out for a walk with her guide dog, Louis, when she hit the sign with her thigh, knocking it over, but not before it ripped a hole in her pants.
And months after that incident — and as construction ramps up across the city and construction sites encroach on sidewalks — Khazanavicius is still fighting.
“I had had enough,” Khazanavicius said in a recent interview with the Examiner. “This is still happening. There is always passing the buck. It’s this department, it’s that department. So many departments. I said, ‘we don’t need so many departments. Here’s the problem. Fix it.’”
As she sees it, the issue is that Halifax regional councillors are permitting developers to build right to the sidewalk, leaving them not much room to do much else. She said HRM staff and engineers are overwhelmed and are passing Construction Management Plans (CMPs) without really assessing them properly on the encroachment issue, which again she said is the responsibility of councillors who have permitted developers to be too close to the sidewalk in the first place. The developers, she said, sometimes end up being lost in the middle.
She said she’s not the only one having troubles navigating the city’s sidewalks in construction zones.
“I am hearing from a few of my acquaintances and more so from sighted people,” who she said become part of the ‘Milena Mafia,’ taking photos of dangerous construction barriers around the city. She said they often take the photos and send them to her.
“Walking by whatever is happening, shaking your head, is doing absolutely nobody any good,” Khazanavicius said.
She said there are a couple of issues. One is that the the signs at the sites that let drivers know construction is ahead are too large and a danger for pedestrians using the sidewalks. Those signs, she said, are the same ones used in construction sites on provincial highways where there are no pedestrians. She said they can be placed much higher where they’re still visible to drivers, but not being a barrier or a danger to pedestrians.
The other issue are inappropriate sidewalk barriers such as fences that close off entire sections of sidewalk and leave pedestrians, including those who are blind and partially sighted, having to find a longer and perhaps more dangerous way to navigate the an area.
When Khazanavicius and her guide dog Louis come to a construction site, Louis looks for an opening. Louis either won’t go past the barrier or if there is a proper access or opening he will steer Khazanavicius that way.
“If I cross an intersection and I am going down the sidewalk and halfway through I can no longer go because there was a sign that said ‘sidewalk closed ahead,’ well, I don’t bloody well know that. So, then I have to stop, turn around, go back to where I came from, and figure out how I can get to where I need to be. … those things matter when it’s snowing, raining, and icy.”
“And it’s not just about me. In that aspect, it’s about all pedestrians.”
Developers submit construction management plans with details to the HRM, which approves them or asks for changes. Khazanavicius said those plans are being created without taking into consideration the safety of pedestrians.
“Those contracts should not be going through until they talked with all people with disabilities or a few of us, like with Walk and Roll,” she said. “There are enough of us there. Before you start your construction, before you submit to HRM staff, talk to us, we will help you work it out, and then we don’t have to backtrack.”
Walk and Roll is a pedestrian advocacy organization that focuses on safety, wellness, accessibility, urban design and maintenance for anyone who walks or rolls, say, with a wheelchair, in the HRM. Khazanavicius has been working with the group to help make sidewalks safer.
Khazanavicius has had success with some projects. This past summer, Khazanavicius helped with a situation at a construction site on Young Street near the Superstore, where Lindsay Construction barricaded a sidewalk she used often on her way to get groceries.
“What was happening was people were running across Young Street or walking in the street. For me, it was taking an extra half an hour to get to the Superstore,” Khazanavicius said. “It should have had right from the beginning, construction management plans looked at by Walk and Roll. It took us two and a half, three months, including threatening a protest, to put in a protected sidewalk.”
And that protected sidewalk is there now, complete with a ramp and barricaded with cement jersey borders. Khazanavicius said people using wheelchairs can now wheel on and off, and anyone using a white cane can detect they are in a construction zone.
Khazanavicius said she doesn’t blame Lindsay Construction for those barriers, though. She said the fault lies with HRM and its staff who approved construction management plans.
“When I ended up talking with Lindsay afterward and they were more than apologetic,” Khazanavicius said. “They said, ‘we gave our CMP, they passed it, we would never want to harm anyone.’ And I actually believed them.”
The Examiner reached out the HRM for an interview in December. Klara Needler said no one was available for an interview, but she responded with links to details about and requirements for about Construction Management Plans here.
As for those signs, they are regulated by the province under the Nova Scotia Traffic Control Manual (NSTCM) and this administrative order relies on the NSTCM being followed.
This administrative order includes details on the measures developers must use to improve the safety and convenience of visually impaired pedestrians. Here’s the list:
• improved definition of safe places to walk, wait, and cross, by way of edge lines, contrasting colours, and contrasting textures;
• installation of devices that give pedestrians right of way and control traffic or help them navigate safely, for example, temporary crossing markings, traffic signals, and audio or textured tactile elements;
• reducing the potential complexity of situations, for example, through the addition of a central refuge for multilane streets so that pedestrians only cross one direction of traffic, accounting for pedestrian crossing time;
• visual cues to highlight to pedestrians the most direct route across the road — sometimes these cues are road marking of the crossing itself or in other cases the alignment of the footpath, hand rails, or the tactile ground surface indicators are positioned in such a way as to ‘launch’ the pedestrian in the right direction;
• provision of a clear path of travel which is free from obstacles and surface irregularities; and,
• measures to reduce vehicle speeds and to increase driver awareness of pedestrians.
And here are the requirements for accessibility:
• walkways for pedestrians and persons using mobility aids are constructed of firm, stable, and non-slip materials, and are accessible grades;
• wherever possible, roadway crossings should be at controlled crosswalks and should be located such that the sidewalk and the crosswalk are perpendicular to one another;
• all pedestrian routes should be free of obstacles, such as light standards, traffic signal supports, posts, overhanging signs, branches, or catch basins as well as temporary objects such as equipment, boxes and garbage containers, etc.; and,
• curb ramps should be provided wherever there is a level difference between the sidewalk, or pedestrian pathway, and the intended travelled surface.
“Concerns about encroachments and sidewalk closures should be directed to 311,” Needler wrote in her email. “The calls will be logged and sent to staff to investigate.”
“Further to the Construction Management Plan, the municipality encourages applicants to reach out to CNIB and Walk n Roll to discuss construction impacts and how those may impact accessibility. For non-routine construction impacts the municipality engages with internal accessibility consultants and external accessibility advocates on construction impacts.”
Khazanavicius recently got a bit of good news when she spoke with Coun. Kathryn Morse. As Zane Woodford reported last week, Morse requested a staff report on whether developers should pay a higher price when their construction encroaches on sidewalks and public spaces. Currently, developers only pay a flat fee between $60 and $150 to encroach on public space, plus a daily fee of $0.15 to $0.30 per square metre. Woodford wrote:
“Closing roads and sidewalks interferes with the safe and efficient movement of vehicular traffic, buses, cyclists, pedestrians, and other users,” Morse wrote in the reasoning for her motion.
“The report should also address options for a new fee structure for use-of-road permits when roads are required to be used for construction, possibly including a range of charges based on square metre used, traffic volume of the road and duration of the project, with the goal of limiting the private use of public roads for construction staging and equipment, as in other Canadian urban centres.”
Khazanavicius said she supports Morse’s motion, but added another staff report is not needed.
“Then we’re going to study the study and spend money on the studying the study,” Khazanavicius said. Again, she encourages developers to work with Walk n Roll first. She said they’ve already worked with developers, including Marco Builders of Atlantic Canada Ltd.* and its development at Gottingen and Bilby streets.
“We walked them through, we talked it out, we wrote it into their papers, and off it went,” Khazanavicius said. “That’s all we are there to do as Walk and Roll. We’re not there to tell how to build their building. It’s to make sure if you are taking up three sidewalks in a four-sidewalk block, we have a problem.”
“We will help to assess what is missing on pedestrian access first and foremost (as I do not care about he traffic as much),” she said. “We must and need to keep our pedestrians safe.”
Getting in the door
Another issue in new developments around the city that is causing barriers for Khazanavicius are the entry systems tenants use to buzz up to visitors.
While older systems were more accessible with touch-key dial pads, Khazanavicius said new systems have a flat screen visitors swipe or tap with their finger and the tenant lets you in. She said many of the systems now in new builds don’t use text to speech, so she can’t use them.
“I can sit there, swipe, stick my tongue out, kick my foot at it, remove my pants, no one will know I am down there waiting for you to let me in,” she said.
Those systems aren’t inaccessible only to people who are blind and partially sighted. Khazanavicius said she’s heard from friends who use wheelchairs who said they can’t use the systems either since the systems aren’t installed at the right height.
Toronto-based Mircom is one of the companies that makes these entry systems. Khazanavicius said she called one of the company’s reps, who is in Burnside, and she said she was asked if the requirement for accessible entry system is in the building code.”
“I said there’s nothing in the building code except that says your building has to be accessible,” she recalled replying. Khazanavicius said she offered to work with Mircom on a solution, but said the rep’s reply was “unless it’s written in, it’s none of our concern.”
“That’s the first time in my 28 years of being blind that I shut down and it took me a week to get over,” she said. “I cried hard.”
The Examiner reached out to Mircom asking about accessible features for its entry systems and received this response spokesperson Stephanie Anichini:
Mircom offers keypad versions of the TX3 with a raised dot on the digit 5 and voice prompts that explain how to make a call. The TX3 Touch does not offer such a provision, but the building owner can add additional systems for accessibility purposes.
Mircom’s products are selected by users, be it builders or operators, to meet the needs of their buildings in conjunction with all other existing solutions. We are confident that with the right product and service mix, which includes Mircom’s panels, the builders and operators strive to meet the needs of all users.
Mircom is always looking for ways to improve its products to meet market demand. One invaluable source of information about what the right market fit is would be feedback of the users. We will be sure to forward this suggestion to our product development team.
Khazanavicius is already making progress on getting in the door with accessible entry systems. She said she started working with her own landlord, who is updating the entrance system in the building where she lives. She said she’s been trying to tell developers in the city to use better, more accessible systems, and she said she reminds them they will likely have to upgrade anyway as the province heads toward its goal of being fully accessible by 2030.
“How many buildings will be up by ? How many buildings are up now? You can guarantee that every developer will say it’s too much for us to reconfigure,” she said.
“Stop it now, do it now.”