As the pandemic exacerbates social distance and long-standing inequalities, the idea of creating inclusive community hubs—where people of all ages and abilities can gather together—is gaining significant momentum.
The negative impacts of social isolation are real, but reverberating even more so within our disability community. In the national COVID-19 Disability Survey, conducted by the Abilities Centre in partnership with Canadian Disability Participation Project researchers from The University of British Columbia and Queen’s University, 80 per cent of respondents reported greater social isolation compared to the average population. As we look forward to fully participating in community life once more, we must also plan for a future through the lens of accessibility and inclusion.
Creating fully accessible environments that foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety are critical for realizing the social and economic potential of our communities. Canada must move beyond simple compliance and box-checking, to transformational change where every individual has an opportunity to contribute to every facet of community life.
Yet the value of inclusion and accessibility has long been misunderstood. So have the legislative requirements for communities to remove barriers to participation. These are missed opportunities that demand attention as we collectively rebuild our economic and social infrastructure post pandemic. If effectively leveraged, accessibility can reap significant economic returns. Canadians with disabilities represent $55 billion of purchasing power annually, and by 2035, 40 per cent of Canada’s consumer base will be people with disabilities. Inclusive and accessible infrastructure allows spending to happen in our communities.
Values live through action
The purpose of embedding inclusion and accessibility into facilities and community spaces is to influence cultural change, where values live through action. We can create communities that are more accessible and welcoming for all by removing the attitudinal, social and community barriers—both physical and invisible—that segregate populations from full community engagement.
Social and cultural understanding of differences guide how a society includes and excludes and are a reflection of attitudes, beliefs and assumptions made by people about people. These attitudes and beliefs shape economic choices, policies and behaviours, as well as the sharing of social spaces. For instance, adopting the attitude that disability means “different” leads to a belief that “different” is too challenging, which impacts how social spaces are designed, used, and how people collaborate within them.
Segregation or exclusion perpetuates beliefs. To break this cycle and spark a societal and economic shift, one step forward is creating social spaces where people are able to participate and observe social collaboration between “different” parties.
One social space that serves as a replicable model around the globe is the Abilities Centre, a not-for-profit organization in Whitby, Ontario. As a community hub, living lab and inclusion incubator, it remains one of Canada’s most accessible and inclusive community spaces—home to evidence-based programs and services in the areas of sport, recreation, leisure, employment, health and well-being and research. Once developed, these programs and services are implemented within the facility and further afield, including provincially, nationally and globally.
To create an inclusive community hub, there must be a conscious and sustained effort to work with and for the people who are being served. There is a need for people to feel a sense of belonging within their communities, which can only be achieved once trust has been established, and once persons with lived experience have been able to demonstrate meaningful action to accompany spoken words and commitments.
The pandemic has put greater emphasis on creating accessible, safe and inclusive spaces for people to gather within once the economy reopens. This means designing buildings to be entirely accessible to persons of all ages and abilities, including those with physical, developmental and neurological disabilities. Such features include accessible wayfinding markers, accessible elevators, sensory rooms, descriptive audio communications, braille, barrier-free weight equipment, spacious change rooms and ramps, to name a few.
Furthermore, it is imperative to look beyond the built environment. Universal design principles and accessibility should be embedded into every aspect of a facility’s operations, including customer service, governance, programs and services, marketing and communications, and all other day-to-day functions.
To meet the needs of communities is to embrace the key principles of co-design and co-production with people who have lived experience, while understanding how intersectionality applies in the experiences and environments community hubs are striving to create.
Inclusion is a journey, not a destination. We all must remain committed as a society to challenge ourselves and those we work with to create environments that are safe, respectful, and value the whole person.
Canada has tremendous potential, and has demonstrated the ability to adapt, innovate and navigate global adversity. As we look to a post COVID-19 era, there are significant opportunities to use accessibility and inclusion as tools for economic and social growth, and to improve quality of life for all Canadians.
Stuart is a passionate advocate and champion for inclusion and is committed to challenging society’s perception towards persons with disabilities and marginalized groups, and in positioning the true value of inclusion for all members of society. With extensive years of senior-level experience working in inclusion initiatives in Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Europe, Stuart brings a unique global perspective to his current responsibilities as president & CEO of the Abilities Centre. He leads people-focused organizations united in transforming communities into fully inclusive and accessible environments. He can be reached at email@example.com