Perceiving Access

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” – Aldous Huxley

Anytime I can open with a Huxley quote I am happy.  In my mind Huxley was brilliant, overcoming his own health issues while developing a philosophy close to my heart.  I read copious amount of Huxley as a kid with a sprinkle of the likes of Edgar Cayce, Lenny Bruce and so many others.  Lying in a hospital bed for six months at a time and reading the likes of Cayce at 11 years old really pumps adrenaline to the development of the limbic system.  With that said I want to put a bit of personal insight out there.

A picture of an optical illusions
What do you see?

I have spend the better part of my life arguing for access but after watching the City Council meeting Monday night I realized just how distorted perception is on this issue.  The newest member of Council had presented a motion,  basically to look at access issues within local government’s jurisdiction or possession.  It was a little bit more involved than that and I could get the actual motion but that’s not my point.  The discussion that followed among Council amazed me.  Based on their contribution to the debate showed me just how differently their “perception” of access is.

An optical illusion
When a bridge becomes a ship it’s easy to lose your way

Although I was hearing a lot of “support” for the idea there was also as much hesitation to support the motion.  As every councillor went around and spoke to the motion it quickly became apparent to me that there was a very narrow concept about what access is.  Much of the conversation focused on “built environment”, ramps, wheelchair friendly hiking trails, curb cuts and the list went on.  Unfortunately we spent so much of the 70’s/80’s creating the perception that access was “physical” that it became buried into societal groupthink.  I was one of those people pushing ramps, curb cuts, modified bathrooms, etc. while feeding the perception that access was all physical.  Well I might have done too good of a job.

In the late 80’s along came “educational inclusion” creating a new dynamic for access, service.  Physical access is very concrete measurable, physically apparent.  Service access is more abstract with measurable’s that are more qualitative than quantitative.  You can’t take a service access and set standards like a 1 in 12 grade for a ramp (just an example).  Qualitative outcomes are based more on perception than length and height, a different way of thinking.

Optical illusion
Knowing the structure helps with the perception

Following a healthy debate Councillor Armstrong agreed to withdraw the motion and revisit it at a later date.  Based on my perception of the subtext in the roundtable discussion it was the best course of action for now.  I, for one, am convinced that any healthy community needs, at minimum, an inventory of those places and services that may require some form of access planning.  I’m not arguing that all access issues have to be corrected today but I am suggesting that Council establish a common definition of what access should be.  To me access is more about attitude than code but that’s just my perception.

It was apparent during the debate that there was good support for that “with the right wording” could be acceptable.  I would suggest to Council that they fully define access before they agree on any cataloguing method.  Understanding the breadth of access is the maker or breaker for success on an initiative like this.

A short comparison from my days with the Office of the Fire Commissioner.  If you asked a fire fighter, a nurse, a policeman, and a paramedic to define the term “public safety”, you would have four different answers.  More than likely they would all be correct based on their perception of their role in public safety but I can almost guarantee you they would all be more focused on their role in the the delivery of the service.  Creating a common definition is best done at the beginning of any project.  It’s much less frustrating (and expensive) than modifying an approach along the way because there was never a spoken consensus at the beginning of the process.

Optical illusion
Count twice, cut once

After listening to the Council meeting I do hope they check their perceptions at the door before getting too deep into problem solving.  You can’t solve something you don’t see and if you don’t look deep enough you miss some of the more important parts.

I hope before Council tackles a new motion regarding the issue of access in Nanaimo that they firmly understand access.  This isn’t just about adhering to some measurable building code but about creating a new groupthink where access is about creating a welcoming environment.  Access to a public park is one thing, access to services that enhance life is another.  Well thought out access will increase the future employment opportunities for the new generation of those requiring some type of accommodation and allow for a better quality of life.  Define access before you decide how to approach it…






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