In condominium corporations, accessibility is too often — and wrongly — associated with unexpected and significant costs and veiled threats of legal action against unresponsive boards and property managers. It may be more helpful to think of through the lens of inclusivity, which is warmer and more inviting and simply means not excluding anyone.
It’s true: boards and property managers have certain obligations under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which has the ultimate goal of making Ontario barrier-free by 2025. This legislation is accompanied by the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation, which sets accessibility standards for customer service, information and communications, employment, transportation and the design of public spaces.
The accessibility standards for customer service and the design of public spaces have particular relevance in condo communities. On-site property management, for example, is contracted to provide a standard of service to all of the corporation’s residents. AODA requires that the same standard of service be upheld for everyone, regardless of disability. The accessibility standards for the design of public spaces may apply to such features as parking and paths of travels when they’re either being newly created or undergoing major changes.
A condo refurbishment project is the perfect time to consider the physical building and come up with a cost-effective plan to provide a more inclusive and accessible environment. In undertaking any renovation, a board should always consider accessibility and inclusivity issues that may be more economical to address as part of a larger scale refurbishment. The trades are already on site, and considering the future needs of the condo community makes dollar sense in the actual construction costs, enhancing the environment of the community and adding real estate value.
Boards in existing buildings — especially older ones — can be proactive by installing such features as automated doors, voice floor annunciators in elevators, lower elevator buttons and braille-stamped plates. Other measures might include removing existing stairs and creating a flat and/or sloped surface in the main lobby. Boards can go even further and build an accessible ramp for residents and guests alike to use.
Another benefit of adding accessibility and inclusivity features to renovation projects is that the enhancements can be incorporated so that, aesthetically, they become part of the overall fabric and palette of the refurbishment. Adding the accessibility features after the fact, in order to be compliant, means that these features will not exactly blend in with the renovation design, and as an add on may even look out of place. The costs may also be significantly more as a smaller independent project which may even compromise the original finishes in order to install these features.
Here’s a look at how the principles of accessibility and inclusivity might be proactively applied in two key common areas: the mail room and the management office.
Simple changes to a management office can make it more inviting to a greater number of residents in the community. Directors should make a number of considerations for this space.
First of all, how will residents enter the management office? Is an accessible door, operated by push button or paddle, installed? The most recent upgrade to this technology also allows for a touchless activation sensor which will trigger the door opener with a simple wave in front of the device.
Also in the entryway, the door threshold can create a tripping hazard. Removing the door threshold and installing a door sweep will level the floor, ensuring strollers, grocery buggies, scooters and walkers have easy access to the management office.
Creating a welcoming space for everyone who enters the management office is not simply a matter of who can access the space. What do residents experience once inside?
There are a number of ways to make the management office feel inviting and open. Push back the counter or reception desk to create a comfortable waiting area; provide standing and seated counter-height options; and provide enough surface space on the counter for any business transaction. There is nothing more annoying than sitting at a counter and organizing papers on one’s lap. Also consider a soft colour scheme and lighting, such as LED.
Crowded spaces will simply make residents feel uncomfortable and irritable and deter them from coming in at all. The more inviting the management office, the more encouraged residents will be to engage with their property manager in person rather than on the phone or by email.
Speaking of which, the corporation also has a responsibility to provide management staff with the tools that they require to perform their duties efficiently. Those tools may include ergonomic office equipment such as chairs and keyboard trays. The management office itself should be an inclusive working environment, also allowing any potential future staff to transition into their new working space.
Most managers tend to meet residents from across their desk, portraying a figure of unmoving authority. A round table creates an atmosphere of relaxed informality and is ideal for promoting discussion. The manager who invites residents to this different space still maintains authority but will diffuse feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Mail room/mail lounge
Mail room areas can be tight quarters. Not everyone is comfortable with the close proximity of others as residents reach over and across, and move around each other, in an attempt to retrieve their mail.
During a recent mail room refurbishment, board members were invited to walk the area pushing a standard-sized wheelchair in order to appreciate the overall physical requirements for space. Line drawings to scale and measurements are extremely useful but flat. Walking through an area can help provide a visual and physical sense of space.
As a result of their experience, the directors worked with their contractor to divide the mail room and the lobby lounge more equitably to provide more space for people to pick up their mail — particularly parents with children, residents using wheelchairs and bundle buggies, and residents accompanied by caregivers. In addition, the width of the ledge at the mailboxes was increased, providing residents with more than adequate space to sort their mail and dispose of junk mail.
Many of these improvements supported the corporation’s duty to provide inclusive customer service to all of its residents. Further, the redistribution of the space ensured that Canada Post personnel were able to manoeuvre their mail carts and trolleys confidently in the mail room, without damaging any of the wall finishes. So, while this was an improvement that would benefit all residents, it also was a proactive measure to limit the amount of damage that could potentially occur under normal circumstances.
Before getting started on a renovation, boards need to understand their specific community. The refurbishment is not a wish list or a spending spree of “I want.” Boards must seriously consider what will enhance the greater community. And that community incudes all ages, every type of family unit and people with visible and invisible physical, emotional and mental health challenges, which may be related, but not limited, to mobility, arthritis, anxiety or depression.
Many boards have agreed to fund accessibility-driven modifications to common elements through their reserve funds in cases where the benefit is inclusive and community wide. Some accessibility and inclusivity-oriented enhancements may end up being cost-prohibitive, but boards should at least consider possible alternatives before setting aside an idea altogether.
Jose De Oliveira is principal, project manager, at JCO & Associates, which have specialized in refurbishing condo common elements for more than 28 years. They have provided design/build and design/bid/build solutions to more than 460 condo corporations.