RNZFB mobility instructor Miriam Stettner (right) guides UC student Judith Aussendorf around campus using a long cane.   RNZFB mobility instructor Miriam Stettner (right) guides UC student Judith Aussendorf around campus using a long cane. CREDIT: University of Canterbury

600,000 disabled Kiwis – negotiating footpaths is tough, UC expert

Monday 1 October 2012, 3:16PM
By University of Canterbury


Over 600,000 Kiwis report some kind of sensory, physical or other disability and many of them struggle with the nation’s footpaths, especially around quake-damaged Christchurch, University of Canterbury (UC) expert Glen Koorey said today.

The 2010 and 2011 quakes took away many disabled people’s independence in Christchurch with some footpaths hazardous for people with poor vision, on crutches or in a wheelchair.

``The paths are riddled with cracks, holes and ridges. People complain about the roads - yes they're bad, but so are the footpaths. Hopefully, Christchurch will be the best city in the world for all abilities after the rebuild,’’ senior lecturer in transport engineering Dr Glen Koorey said.

``Most of our urban environment is designed for able-bodied pedestrians. For the average person it is difficult to appreciate the often little things that can make a huge difference to some people successfully travelling along and across our streets and paths.

``People with mobility issues for example requires smooth, flat, trip-free surfaces and gentle ramps to access crossings. Those with very poor or no vision need to know where safe crossings are, where to stop before stepping into traffic, and which way to go next.

``As part of a postgraduate course in planning and design for sustainable transport taught at UC, students here are put through their paces learning to experience what it is like to travel around with a variety of impairments.’’

With assistance from the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB), the students are provided with wheelchairs, crutches and walking canes to wander around a circuit on the streets and paths of campus. Some students have their leg splinted to prevent bending of the knee, some use goggles that only give cloudy vision or very limited sight.

He said the training was even more relevant at the moment with parts of Christchurch out of action. There were a lot of temporary restrictions and pathways, which were often hard enough for able-bodied people to get around, he said. If not planned carefully they could be completely impassable for people with sensory or mobility impairments.

At the same time there is an opportunity for the new rebuilt Christchurch to provide an even more accessible environment for all pedestrians than before, he said.

Aaron Washington, a transport engineer at Beca in Tauranga, said the UC training experience was unlike anything he had had encountered before.

``I never really appreciated how difficult it is for mobility impaired people to perform the day to day tasks that I consider trivial."

Diana Munster from the Dunedin City Council said she would recommend the exercise to other consultants, contractors and transport engineers who were involved in planning, designing or installing pedestrian facilities.

Gisborne planner Bev Muir said the exercise was valuable because it was something that was challenging and pushed many outside their comfort zones.

``You felt vulnerable and frustrated, as many must in their daily lives when confronted with design that doesn't consider those with mobility or sensory impairments.  Secondly, it is memorable,  no study required to remember the lessons about how much your arm hurts after trying to negotiate a sloping footpath in a wheelchair, or the disorientation trying to find a crossing place if all you can see is a blur of peripheral colours."