Complaints that wheelchair users face barriers to access a community meeting room will be looked into, the Buller District Council says.
Lisa Neil, who chairs the Reefton social services agency Who Cares has appealed to the council and government agencies to be more diligent in finding out what people with disabilities really need.
Neil, a wheelchair user, has been lobbying for years for more accessible roads and kerbs in her town, and the Transport Agency announced this week it would build a safety crossing on the main street, Broadway.
The crossing will build the level of the road up at the edges to make it safer and easier for wheelchair users to launch themselves off the kerb and manage the camber more easily.
Neil said that would be helpful for a number of people, including those who used walkers or other mobility aids. But it would not entirely resolve the accessibility issue for Reefton wheelchair users, she said.
“It still leaves the problem of how to get across Smith Street; from the supermarket to the rest of the shops and a lot of the stores I can’t enter, because they have steps – that’s just part of living in an older town – but there are things that the council and other authorities can change.”
Reefton’s old Plunket rooms, where the council and community board now held meetings, was a case in point, with steps and a ramp too steep for active wheelchair users, Neil said.
Other examples were the new steps to the Strand and the Powerhouse Walk, neither of them navigable for wheelchairs.
“We pay rates and we help raise funds for these amenities, and then we find we are shut out from using them. It’s not a nice feeling.”
The disability community was often told what it needed, rather than asked, and council communication had in the past been haphazard, she said.
“There was one meeting where the council wanted to know what work it should do on the kerbs and footpaths, but it wasn’t well advertised and most of us didn’t know about it till afterwards.”
There were two active wheelchair users in Reefton, but plenty of other people with mobility challenges, Neil said.
“There’s the ones who push loved ones and rest home patients around, it’s really hard for them, there are mobility scooters and people with walkers, and that’s only going to increase with more seniors coming to town.”
The Buller District Council should be planning now to meet those needs and set up a register of people with mobility issues and disabilities who could advise it directly, she said.
“I don’t want to come across as a moaner – we are seeing a bit of progress, but this is not rocket science. It’s about equity, safety and not excluding or humiliating people.”
Council community services manager Rachel Townrow said the council had begun trialling the idea of community reference groups during last year’s Covid lockdown, when consultation via public meetings was not possible.
“We found that worked well, contacting people directly affected by a particular issue, for their feedback.”
The council would use that strategy more when it began consultation on its long-term plan in April, she said.
“The council doesn’t have a disability policy as such, but all councils contributed to the West Coast DHB’s disability strategy, and now that’s finalised we’ll be looking at how we can give effect to it in our council planning documents.”
Following the Greymouth Star’s question about why there was no wheelchair access to council meetings in Reefton, Townrow said she would raise an immediate service request for staff to investigate a solution.
“Now we are using that building more, it is something we need to look at.”
Anyone encountering similar problems that were within the council’s power to fix could also raise them as service requests, by phone or on-line, Townrow said.
Local Democracy Reporting