Every day across Canada people with disabilities, older adults, and seniors struggle to access spaces like offices, retail shops, restaurants, and community centres because of physical barriers and obstacles created literally by design. What’s worse is that solutions to accessibility barriers are often simple. That’s why including universal design principles are an integral part of the design and building process. Planners, designers and builders need tools to accurately measure current levels of accessibility and be able to plan for greater accessibility. Once project teams become aware of real accessibility barriers and obstacles, it’s easy to resolve these issues and create spaces that are accessible for all users.
There’s no better time than now to rethink how people access and use public places and spaces. Today, one in seven Canadian adults identifies as having some form of disability that affects their mobility, hearing, or vision. Due in part to our large and aging Baby Boomer population, this number is expected to increase to one in five Canadians by 2036, or almost nine million people. This huge population shift calls for the planning and creation of universally accessible communities that allow for successful aging-in-place.
Knowing this means rethinking how people at all stages of life will access and use public and private buildings and spaces. Universally planning, designing, and constructing the built environment from the early stages is key to providing meaningful access: the ability for anyone of any ability or age to independently and safely access the places where they live, work, learn, and play based on planned inclusion. Simply put, it’s critical for designers and builders to plan for access from the start in order to meet the real needs of all future users.
To begin creating an accessible building project, keep three things in mind. First, challenge your assumptions. People with disabilities are not only wheelchair users. There are eight different disability groups that need to be represented throughout the planning process, and each group has its own different accessibility needs. It’s important to design and build spaces that are driven by the needs of users of all ages and abilities, and not simply to code minimums.
Second, avoid labelling at every opportunity. The stigma of being labelled disabled is a significant social barrier, and it has a profound effect on users, especially older adults and seniors. ‘Separate’ accessible entrances separate; ‘segregated’ cash counters segregate. Making ‘special accommodations’ means that a user with different abilities is not considered valuable. Look for opportunities to eliminate separate or segregated spaces.
And lastly, involve an accessibility expert in your design and build. Accessibility affects virtually all areas of a project from the early designing and planning to building completion. Access and inclusion is best achieved by including an accessibility professional who is able to look at access issues holistically in your process.
To help plan for meaningful access, the Rick Hansen Foundation has created Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC), a LEED-style rating system that rates the accessibility of buildings and sites. The program promotes increased access through the adoption of universal design principles and provides a national standardized measurement of what accessibility really means and how it’s applied across all elements of the built environment. The program also trains and qualifies professional assessors to rate buildings based on their level of meaningful access using a consistent methodology, the only program of its kind to do so.
Ultimately, the long-term usability and viability of our communities depends on design and construction that fully incorporate universal design and embrace everyone. Cities with aging-in-place solutions that support intergenerational living all rely on the practical application of universal design to make them work. RHFAC gives designers and builders the opportunity to plan for the full inclusion of all users in their projects and renovations. It’s only by incorporating universal design that projects will be able to meet these new demands for accessibility.
Brad McCannell is vice president, Access and Inclusion, at the Rick Hansen Foundation. Since founding Canadian Barrier Free Design Inc. in 1992, Brad has been a leader in the field of accessibility and has extensive experience in the application of universal design across the built environment. Learn more about the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) program at rickhansen.com/RHFAC.
Photo: Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification Program assessors, Rod Bitz (in the wheelchair) and Uli Egger.