Facility considerations for accessibility take center stage in Canada.
By Jason Henninger
With nearly a quarter of Canadians identifying as disabled — and that number growing as the population ages — it makes sense from logistical, financial and ethical perspectives to be sure that facilities are as accommodating as possible to disabled people, whether workers or customers. These concerns prompted the creation of the Accessible Canada Act, aiming to make Canada free of barriers to people with disabilities by 2040.
This act represents a comprehensive effort to broaden the definition of disability (physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairments, regardless of duration) and create a stated goal to remove all barriers from hindering people with disabilities. The act defines barriers as “anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice—that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with an impairment.”
As disabilities and the accommodations they require vary, this is an area of legislation — on federal, provincial and local levels — that can change often as understanding and awareness of disabled peoples’ needs increases. And through voluntary audits or consulting with disabled experts, FMs can create positive experiences for disabled people beyond what is mandated by law.
Wheelchair accessibility may be the best-known type of accommodation, but true accessibility encompasses a broad spectrum of concerns. “Accessibility encompasses a wide range of elements,” said Dr. Marjorie Aunos, a disability advocate and expert. “It could be something in terms of physical access, but it also touches anybody with sensory diversity, such as vision and hearing issues.”
“When we talk about accessibility, it’s not just physical,” added Marcia O’Connor, President of AM FM Consulting Group. “It could be diabetes, arthritis, blindness, or a mental disability as well. It is an FM's duty to ensure everyone can use the facility comfortably and safely.”
Areas of Focus
According to O’Connor, current accessibility requirements focus on the following areas of a facility:
Entrances and Exits: These should be equipped with ramps or other alternatives to stairs for individuals with mobility impairments. Doorways may also need to be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and doors may need automatic openers or other assistive devices.
Corridors and Pathways: These should also be wide enough for wheelchair users and should not have obstacles that could create barriers. Paths should be smooth and even to avoid trips and falls.
Stairways: Where stairways are necessary, there should also be alternatives like elevators or ramps. Stairways themselves can have features like handrails to help those with mobility impairments.
Restrooms: These should have stalls large enough for a wheelchair, along with appropriate grab bars. Sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers or towels should be at an accessible height. In some cases, facilities might also need to provide changing tables for adults with disabilities.
Parking Areas: There should be enough accessible parking spaces, and these spaces should be located near accessible entrances.
Lighting: Adequate lighting is important for people with visual impairments, and flashing lights can be problematic for individuals with certain cognitive or neurological disabilities.
More is Best
Aunos emphasized that since the requirements differ by location — with some provinces and cities being more comprehensive than others — the best approach is to go beyond focusing on what is required for both ethical and financial benefit. “It's not so much looking at what our states or provinces are doing but more understanding what is necessary so that we become the first to do it, which will bring loyalty and customers,” she said. “Let’s say a business with a certain number of customers a week or month should have this many accessible parking spots. But then, people with disabilities arrive, and there won't be free spots. There are those standards, and then there's the reality. For someone with a disability, like myself, I would say that the standards are the minimum. Try to give a little more because that will make a big difference.”
In terms of governmental policing of accessibility requirements, the focus is often on new construction or renovation and less on the requirements of existing facilities. This is another reason why Aunos and O’Connor advocate for FMs to be proactive in ensuring that the facility is truly accessible through self-motivated education and external compliance audits. “Be aware of what accessibility encompasses,” Aunos said. “And have consultants that actually visit and try things out so they can pinpoint what is working and what is not.”
“When I do accessibility audits, I say you need to put all your lenses on,” O’Connor said. “Put yourself in the position of somebody with a disability and try to get into a building. I look at it from coming in from the parking lot. Think to yourself, ‘What if I had chronic problems with my hands or a visibility issue? What about if I used a walker or wheelchair? How do I get into the building? What are the barriers?’”
Such audits should be based on compliance legislation but can go beyond merely adhering to requirements and bring to light a wide variety of hazards and obstacles that an untrained or non-disabled person is likely to overlook.
On a Personal Level
“Canada is moving in the right direction [with the Accessible Canada Act] to require organizations to identify barriers that impact all people,” O’Connor said. “Advancing accessibility is about creating barrier-free communities and services for all Canadians because of the growing and aging number of Canadians with disabilities. From my perspective, accessibility means ensuring that people are not excluded from accessing or using a product or service due to their disability. It means making sure that basic barriers are removed or reduced so that individuals with disabilities can feel safe and enjoy the organization’s services provided barrier-free.”
Aunos also sees the Act as a significant move forward, saying the Act makes her feel seen. “I feel like I am respected as an active citizen of my country. It is making sure I can go where I want, and most importantly, I can shop and provide for my son,” she said. “By having an official country-based act, it is telling people how important accessibility and inclusion is. It makes me excited for the future. And it is making me proud.”
With that positivity in mind, Aunos also keeps her eye on the practical side, saying she hopes organizations will be held accountable for implementing the recommendations. “I want the Act to be translated into reality and practice. In doing so, it will help all of us.”