Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

One man's quest to make life easier

Campaigner says people with limited mobility get a raw deal.

Hylton LeGrice fought objections from the Auckland City Council's heritage consultant for seven years for these brass handrails at the Town Hall. Photo / Greg Bowker
Hylton LeGrice fought objections from the Auckland City Council's heritage consultant for seven years for these brass handrails at the Town Hall. Photo / Greg Bowker

For 50 years, Hylton LeGrice was a member at Eden Park. Not any more.

Dr LeGrice, an honorary surgeon to the Auckland Cricket Association for 27 of those years, has given up his membership because he can no longer get to his seat.

He is still perfectly capable of walking on a flat surface. But, along with one in every 11 adult New Zealanders and more than a third of those aged 75-plus, he has difficulty walking long distances or getting up and down steps - in his case because of a childhood bout of polio.

After seven years of lobbying, he succeeded three years ago in getting discreet brass handrails installed beside all the steps inside the Auckland Town Hall - an innovation fought for years by the council's heritage consultant.

But there are no handrails to help him up and down the steps at Eden Park, or along the sloping floor of the main auditorium in the Aotea Centre.

"You almost need crampons and ropes to get around the Aotea Centre," he says.

Eden Park has designated seats for wheelchair users, but Dr LeGrice does not consider himself "disabled" and wants to sit with his family.

Vivian Naylor, a Barrier Free adviser with CCS Disability Action, says Auckland needs to do better to achieve Mayor Len Brown's goal of making it "the world's most liveable city" - and not just for wheelchair users like herself.

"There is going to be more of this the more older people there are around," she says. "The majority will be walking."

Eden Park

Taxpayers and ratepayers have spent $240 million upgrading Eden Park for the Rugby World Cup, including a new stand lifting the park's capacity to 60,000. But the extra seats have come at the cost of keeping the stepped aisles between them so narrow there is no room for a central handrail.

"If they had made it slightly wider you could have had a handrail down the centre," says Dr LeGrice. "It's a denial of basic human rights for a certain percentage of the population - and it's all about money."

On top of that, the disability carparks behind the new stand that were a condition of its resource consent have been banished during the World Cup, replaced by designated parking near Countdown in Dominion Rd with a shuttle service to the park.

A park spokeswoman says the extra parking actually provides for more disability access. She says handrails in the aisles would block evacuation.

"It's simply not practical or safe to put handrails throughout a stadium."

Vector Arena

Handrails run up and down the middle of each accessway to the 12,000 seats of the Vector Arena.

"We had to do it, our steps at the back are quite steep," says general manager Brendan Hines.

But getting there is more difficult. There are disabled carparks, but they are on the far side of the old railway station - "an unacceptable walk for most mobility-challenged individuals", says Dr LeGrice.

The arena's website says: "If you need to drop passengers close to the arena, the designated area is on Quay St by our pedestrian bridge/ramp, which leads directly up to the front plaza."

But that part of Quay St is a bus lane with no space for parking. Mr Hines says this is not a problem because few buses come into the city on that side of Quay St at the times most shows start in the evening.

Taxis and cars with mobility stickers can also drop passengers in Mahuhu Crescent, the small street in front of the arena. But this requires parking on a yellow line and holding up traffic.

Mr Hines advises people with mobility issues to ignore the yellow line and not worry about other cars because traffic management for a big show is about dropping off and picking up rather than through traffic.

"The difficult part is when we don't have traffic management on for the smaller shows, where it's more of a free-for-all at the front."

Town Hall

At the Town Hall, too, Dr LeGrice has won the battle for handrails.

"The irony of this saga was that the heritage consultant, in writing to inform me of the installation, amazingly thanked me because on his final sign-off inspection he said he was saved from a serious fall down the stairs by a handrail that he had opposed for seven years," he says.

But getting into the hall has actually got harder since the footpath outside in Queen St was widened, removing space to drop people at the door. Auckland Transport is looking at making another parking layby near the entrance into a P15 drop-off zone after 6pm.

Dr LeGrice, a former chairman of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and his wife, Angela, prefer to park in the underground civic carpark. But the disabled carparks there are often full and the lift to the back of the Town Hall is often out of order, damaged by people urinating at night.

The back door to the Town Hall by the lift is chained shut during the day, even during the Union rugby exhibition, because of limited staffing. That means anyone who can't climb steps has to walk to the bottom end of Aotea Square near the cinema centre and then back up Queen St to the hall.

Able-bodied people would not even notice, but a slight incline from the lift down to each floor of the underground carpark is also a real barrier for Dr LeGrice because there are no handrails.

Aotea Centre

Vivian Naylor says the Aotea Centre, opened in 1990 as Auckland's premier cultural and conference venue, has been "a dog's breakfast of a building from the start". Unlike Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre built in 1983, there is no covered drop-off point at the front door and no central lift to all levels.

Officially there is a drop-off place in a carpark behind the Bledisloe Building. But once you get up a bit of a slope from there to the Aotea Centre you have to walk right down to the south end of the building to find a lift tucked away behind the auditorium.

You can take the lift up to get into the circle of the auditorium, but if your tickets are in the upper part of the circle you are directed to steps up from the main foyer. The alternative is to push through people sitting at lower levels to get across and up the sloping floor inside.

The lift also goes down to the first level of the underground carpark, though not to the two lower levels. There are 10 disability carparks nearby, but Dr LeGrice says these are usually full on a show night and there is a "No Stopping" sign next to the Aotea Centre lift because it is in the main line of traffic inside the carpark entrance from Greys Ave.

Robbie Macrae, director of council-owned agency The Edge which runs the centre, says the council has budgeted $15 million to renovate the main auditorium over the next two summers, reducing the slope of the ground floor, realigning the foyers at that level and installing more wheelchair spaces in the circle.

Auckland Airport

Dr LeGrice says the airport's international terminal is "one of the worst examples in Auckland of a total disregard for those with mobility challenges".

"Taxis can't drop you at the departure area," he says.

Through the departure door, you face up to an 800m walk to board your aircraft with "a total lack of any aids such as travelators or small hand luggage carts".

Two short travelators have been installed for arriving passengers towards the end of the walk back from the gates to the Customs hall, but the lack of small luggage carts or longer travelators means that anyone with mobility problems is met with a wheelchair.

"Arriving aircraft have to be met with multiple attended wheelchairs for many passengers who never use a wheelchair in any other situation," Dr LeGrice says.

Airport corporate relations manager Richard Llewellyn says work is under way to assess better options for disabled and mobility-reduced passengers in getting to and from the far ends of the international piers.

He says cars can no longer park directly outside the terminal "in line with global security trends", but two disability parks are available for pickup and drop-off.

- NZ Herald

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