Barriers abound in existing built environment

Ontario’s accessibility standards carve out navigable pockets
Thursday, November 15, 2012
By Barbara Carss

Voluntary action will continue to be the predominant dismantler of barriers in Ontario’s built environment and landscapes as promised standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) slowly come into force.

The most recently released component of the provincial integrated accessibility standards applies to new construction and/or redevelopment of a fairly limited range of primarily exterior public spaces, while the greater remainder of regulations pertaining to interior space is slated for a future edition of the Ontario Building Code.

Nevertheless, owners and managers of existing buildings do have approaching deadlines to consider. All private sector organizations with at least 50 employees will have to prepare accessibility plans and file reports by Dec. 31, 2014. Beyond that, the Act’s stated goal is that Ontario will be accessible by 2025.

“One of the core elements of AODA is that it reflects the tenets of the Human Rights Code, and building managers and landlords are obliged, right now, to accommodate individual requests under the Human Rights Code,” says Nicole Cormier, business development manager with the consulting firm, AccessAbility Advantage. “The aim of these new standards is that, over time, they will make Ontario more accessible.”

Some of the proposed accessibility standards for public spaces pertain to areas that are typically the public sector’s responsibility, while standards for off-street parking, exterior paths of travel, outdoor eating and play areas, service counters, waiting areas and queuing guides will apply to many privately owned facilities and amenities.

Exception to the rule
Exemptions will depend on the ownership structure of the property. The draft standards provide an exemption for private sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees – a point of contention for the AODA Alliance, a coalition of proponents of barrier-free access who urge timely implementation of the Act.

“This would exempt an organization even if it owns a large amount of land and has ample resources and revenues to ensure the accessibility of its public spaces,” the Alliance argued in its submission to the Ontario government. “The draft regulation needs to be revised to extend these requirements to small private sector organizations that have the capacity to comply with them.”

For larger companies, new construction or redevelopment, which the Ontario government defines as “work on an element, structure or site that takes it beyond its original condition,” will trigger requirements for compliance. However, exceptions will also be granted for properties designated in accordance with the Ontario Heritage Act and/or if physical or site constraints prevent feasible adoption of the measure.

Low-cost compliance
Few of the public space standards are likely to impose major capital costs, particularly when the accessibility features are incorporated in new construction. They are more of a tool to prompt awareness in the design, planning and development phases to prevent barriers. Notably, organizations will be mandated to consult with people with disabilities and the general public about design and the placement of supportive features.

Sensitive choice of materials and vigilant maintenance are key factors for exterior walkways, courtyards and plazas that are also just good management practices for any venue competing for tenants and customers.

Developments built within the last 15 years should already be in compliance with the proposed configurations for ramps, stairs and railings since they are the same as the standards that have been stipulated in the Ontario Building Code since 1997. Likewise, many existing municipal parking bylaws now match or even exceed the proposed standards for accessible parking spaces and associated access lanes.

“I think the intention was to ensure it was achievable within limited budgets, both private and public. That was seen as the best way to provide accessibility within the intent of the Act,” says Rick Merrill, an urban designer and principal with the consulting firm, The Planning Partnership. He is also a member of the Ontario government’s advisory committee for the development of the built environment standards.

Implementation inertia
The AODA Alliance counters that this approach is too tentative and is causing delays that make a mockery of the 2025 deadline for accessibility.

“We are deeply concerned that this draft regulation only addresses new developments or substantial redevelopments. Otherwise, it leaves the many existing barriers in the built environment of public spaces in place to continue to impede persons with disabilities,” the organization states in its response to the proposed standards. “Even if this draft regulation was fully and faithfully complied with, Ontario would not reach fully accessible public spaces by 2025, even in terms of new developments and redevelopments.”

Accessibility advocates, designers and organizations responsible for complying also critique the standards’ vagueness in some areas, and have asked for more descriptive language and detailed specifications. For example, comments from the City of Hamilton note that the standards call for slip-resistant and tactile walking surfaces but do not provide a definition of either.

“There is really not enough in the standards to actually design an accessible public space. It provides very minimal dimensions,” says Amy Pothier, an accessibility specialist with Quadrangle Architects.

Assessment instigates action
Required accessibility plans and reporting should bring more attention to the issue and provide impetus for building owners and managers who have been slower to consider and address accessibility. As proposed, the designated private sector organizations would have to prepare and file a first report by Dec. 31, 2014, and then update it at three-year intervals. Public sector organizations such as municipalities, schools/universities and health care facilities would be required to report by Dec. 31, 2013, and update their plans biennially.

The Ontario government has a web-based tool to guide organizations through the reporting process but there is also a growing contingent of consultants providing accessibility audit and advisory services. An accessibility audit could also be an insightful exercise for many building owners and managers regardless of whether they have a regulatory obligation to produce plans and reports.

“As a (building) manager, your expertise lies in managing the building and maybe not so much in how the design works and how accessible it is for people with a disability,” says Pothier. “You may not see things the way a person with a disability will.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.

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