Tips for accessible, AODA-friendly buildings

Creating barrier-free spaces requires training, understanding and thinking 'out-of-the-box'.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
By Rebecca Melnyk

Legislation regarding the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) can be an advantage for property managers and building owners, says Colin McCarthy, founder of Accessibility Professionals of Ontario.

Speaking at a recent seminar during Construct Canada, McCarthy stood in a room at the Metro Convention Centre and shared his own experiences as a disabled person navigating the built environment. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 14, McCarthy’s leg was amputated from the hip down. Since then, he has spent his life overcoming barriers and working with companies to create accessible spaces.

With impending deadlines rolling out for a fully accessible Ontario from January 2015 to 2025, McCarthy says fines can be considerable for non-compliance, but the fear of ignorance should come more from the disabled community itself.

“Disabled individuals have been overlooked for a considerable amount of time,” he said to the audience. “Well, now they have a tool to go after you, and they will.”

At the same time, McCarthy says that beginning to create accessible environments is not as overwhelming as it might seem. His experiences serve to enlighten those who might not see subtle or even obvious obstructions in building interiors and exteriors or in ways they communicate with disabled persons. Step by step, accessibility is achievable.

Smaller organizations with 20-49 employees and larger organizations with 50 or more employees must complete and submit an accessibility compliance report with the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment & Infrastructure by December 31, 2014.

Some helpful points to consider while thinking about reporting obligations include the following:


McCarthy suggests training is one of the most important aspects of creating a multi-year plan. Staff that has contact with third parties or tenants need to recognize barriers in order to understand how to cost-effectively remove such barriers. This also includes any employee who develops policy, practices and procedures.

Employees, as well as tenants, should also review updated emergency plans and clearly notify anyone with disabilities that emergency help is available in all good formats.

Emergency plans

Looking ahead, all buildings should be compliant with accessible standard emergency plans. According to Statistics Canada, one in seven people is living with a disability, and many more are hiding disabilities due to stigma. Property managers should understand how they will evacuate everyone and begin putting those plans into effect.

McCarthy suggests reviewing your plans with anyone with a disability, using simple maps of the building created with large print. Reviewing the layout also means working directly with people to create individualized emergency response plans. What works for one person doesn’t work for another.

Marilyn Wetson, owner of the Reliable Living Centre in downtown Toronto, a centre that offers products and training to help create barrier-free buildings, adds that people should be aware of alternative technologies and new solutions.

“Emergencies happen,” she says. “We shouldn’t wonder how to get out—it should be a given that all public buildings show us the way out.”

McCarthy says this can happen in a cost-effective manner. “Solutions don’t have to be expensive. Sometimes it just requires out-of-the-box thinking,” he says.

In the case of power outages, when elevators and escalators stop working, Ecoglo produces photoluminescent materials that are incorporated into cost-effective emergency lighting and signage systems. The technology points to exits when electricity fails.

Tactile warning indicators also help guide people to feel direction from their feet, so they know when to expect a change of height.

Wetson stressed that leaving the mobility-impaired behind should never be an option. Thinking about problems before they happen and purchasing proactive products, such as an Evacu-Trac—a foldable and user-friendly evacuation chair—will include everyone in an emergency plan. Such a product is less expensive than installing ramps.

Interior barriers

Regarding the Ontario Building Code (OBC) regulation, changes to barrier-free accessible design requirements will take effect January 1, 2015.

McCarthy pointed out a few key areas within a building that owners and managers can begin to improve.

Accessible counters or installing a lower area allows a service person to communicate eye-level with a customer in a mobility device or a shorter person.

There should also be an available hearing loop on the counter for anyone who is hearing-impaired.

Tactile signage is another important factor and perhaps the least expensive alteration. If managers or owners cannot afford to retrofit all the stalls within a washroom, signage indicating accessible stalls is an option.

Sometimes barriers are more subtle than others, such as toilet paper that is too far from a toilet, incorrect stall sizes that don’t fit mobility devices, doors you cannot lock with a closed fist and knee space under sinks.

If a hairdryer or sink is above 57 or 58 inches, it might not be easy to reach. McCarthy says the best height is between 900 and 1200 millimetres.

And McCarthy adds that accessibility doesn’t have to be unattractive. Grab bars no longer look like grab bars. Heavy grab bars can now be installed into toilet paper rolls. High-tech glass-enclosed elevators on the market, as displayed in the Reliable Living Centre, can now be serviced remotely, eliminating the need for costly on-site service repair.

Exterior barriers

In respect to reducing barriers and implementing them into a multi-year plan, signage will begin to help manage issues related to exterior barriers.

As a disabled person, McCarthy is amazed that tactile indicators used for elevation changes, such as curb cuts, stairs and when walking from a sidewalk into a lane of traffic, haven’t been applied more.

In Ontario, there should be four accessible parking spots for the first 100. Of those four, one must be van accessible. Every 50 parking spots after the first 100 need one accessible spot, and for the second 50 spots, a van size spot must be visible.

Accessible spots must be located 30 metres from the entrance and have visible signage on the floor or wall near the spot.

“We feel it’s important that an individual who needs these spots knows where they are,” says McCarthy.

If a building has underground parking, a visitor or tenant must know where to find accessible spaces. Whether the space is on the first or fifth floor, there must be ample signage directing the person to the spot and it must be near an entrance door.

For outdoor eating areas, at least 20 per cent of tables must be accessible, reaching 27 or 29 inches in height and able to accommodate a mobility device rolled underneath. Again, signage should indicate which tables are accessible.

McCarthy suggests that managers and owners navigate their properties in a wheelchair or blindfold in order to gather knowledge of access points, services and other possible barriers.

As all properties vary, managers designing and enforcing future accessibility plans may wish to locate and understand their buildings’ own unique barriers. For further reference, the Accessibility Professionals of Ontario offers building audits and customer service training. Or, for a free consultation to determine what solutions are best for your building, contact the Reliable Living Centre.

Rebecca Melnyk is the online editor of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability