Imagine approaching an elevator in the PATH system, reading a sign that says “buzz for assistance,” and waiting 20 minutes for security to come operate the otherwise standard lift. Imagine pulling a vehicle into an accessible space, then navigating the parking lot uphill in a wheelchair, over speed bumps, to find the pay-and-display ticket dispenser, only to realize that it’s out of reach. Imagine clasping a grab bar in a bathroom stall and watching it rip clear out of the wall.
Jason Chiles doesn’t have to imagine these scenarios. He has experienced all three first hand, stories he shared at a recent Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) seminar.
The beginning of the calendar year marked the latest compliance deadline associated with the AODA, which has the ultimate goal of making the province barrier free by 2025. As of Jan. 1, large private and non-profit corporations (50 or more employees) were expected to comply with employment standards designed to proactively accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace, through all phases of their career — from recruitment to performance management to redeployment.
Employment standards ramp up accommodation requirements
Human resources may own responsibility for compliance, but facility managers have an important supporting role to play in meeting these employment standards, as Jane Sleeth, managing director at Optimal Performance Consultants, observes.
“There’s going to be more pressure brought to bear for the facility manager to make sure that the facility is more accessible, but also from a maintenance perspective,” she says.
For example, a facility may have textured strips on an outdoor walkway, but they’re not much use to a person with visual impairment arriving at the property for an interview if they’re covered in snow.
Organizations are already required to accommodate employees with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship per the Ontario Human Rights Code. The employment standards, which are captured under the integrated accessibility standards regulation, expand on this. They mandate making the recruitment process accessible, letting employees know what supports are available and documenting individual accommodation plans, among other activities.
Since the employment standards touch many different departments, including health and safety, IT and marketing, Sleeth suggests they should all have a seat on an accommodation committee. Human resources can convey that an organization is willing accommodate employees, but they need to communicate with facility management to figure out the logistics based on what is possible within the built environment.
Building code sets minimum baseline for barrier-free access
Facility managers may be more familiar with the AODA’s associated built environment standards, which require barrier-free access in buildings and public spaces.
Starting in 2015, an amendment to the Ontario Building Code dictated that major renovations and new construction adhere to updated specifications for access widths, door clearances and the like. The same year, the integrated accessibility standards regulation’s design of public spaces standards rolled out to the provincial government. Designated public sector organizations had until this year to meet the requirements for newly constructed and redeveloped public spaces, while large private and non-profit corporations have until 2017.
But, as interior designer Kim Walker points out, “The code sets a minimum baseline.”
The built environment standards begin in the parking lot, which must provide two types of spaces, with one sized to accommodate a wheelchair van, and flow through the facilities. The standards provide for automatic openers at entrances (consider ease of operation); they apply to reception desks and service counters (think dropped surfaces); and they consider waiting areas, paths of travel (corridors and hallways) and access to amenities. Amenities might include outdoor spaces and indoor lunchrooms, where Walker says a minimum of 10 per cent of the furniture ought to be flexible.
As the interior designer highlights in a case study, ergonomics and adaptability considerations can make it easier to accommodate a range of individuals in the workplace. Those considerations might include configuring desks for left- or right-handed use, maintaining clear access underneath desks, selecting cabinet pulls that are simple to maneuver and providing adjustable computer monitor and task chairs as well as accessories such as document holders and foot rests.
True accommodation demands different point of view
Chiles offers a unique perspective on accessibility because, now in his forties, he only began using a wheelchair in the last five years. The IT consultant sustained a spinal cord injury after going over the handlebars of his bike at 17, but the MRI technology of the time didn’t detect it and he didn’t experience symptoms until much later.
“Look at the workplace from a different point of view,” he says. “What do you take for granted?”
Chiles readily admits that he didn’t consider accessibility issues before encountering them for himself. He says he recognizes that in older buildings, it may be difficult to change everything, but he urges organizations to do what they can to accommodate individuals — the small fixes can make a big difference.
The IT consultant adds that if organizations are going to commit to making their facilities accessible, they need to get it right. In the case of the improperly anchored grab bar — something he encounters often — he advises against relying on contractors. Chiles also recommends calling in specialists and consulting people with disabilities who use the space.
He has endless examples of “accessibility fails,” ranging from a cut away located at the front of an accessible parking spot, to a charity display blocking an accessible push button, to a bar using its accessible washroom to store beer cases.
Chiles encourages anyone involved in the accommodation process to rent a wheelchair for a day to get a sense of how well they’re really doing in their facilities.
Meanwhile, as Ontario’s accessibility legislation continues to take effect in phases, corporations that have missed deadlines, which vary based on sector and size of organization, risk possible penalties of $500 to $15,000. (Corporations convicted for offences under the AODA are liable to pay fines up to a maximum of $100,000 per day.) Earlier deadlines required that organizations by now have in place a customized evacuation plan for employees with disabilities as well as a multi-year accessibility plan for removing and preventing barriers to employees and customers.
Elsewhere in the Canada, B.C. is implementing an accessibility plan with a 2024 deadline, while Manitoba in 2013 followed Ontario’s example with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.