One of the most common misconceptions I encounter when discussing accessibility is ‘I’m already accessible, because my building meets code’. However, building code does not regulate emergency evacuation plans for people with disabilities, and it generally only accounts for wheelchair users. It does not account for disabilities in the areas of agility, hearing, vision and cognition, and people who use wheelchairs have dominated the conversation. Meeting code does not equal meaningful access for all users.
Meaningful access recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Building code might indicate that there should be a ramp next to the stairs. However, the ramp could have a 1/8th slope, which some people could roll up, but I can’t. Meaningful access considers all the users, and their entire experience. From the moment they arrive, it’s the path to the door, it’s the door itself, it’s going through it, it’s everything the user does inside the building and how they leave.
A building with meaningful access has a few distinctive traits. These traits are not the nuts and bolts of how steep your ramp should be. Instead, they are the outcome, they are what you achieve when all of your accessible features come together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What are the Five Traits of a Meaningfully Accessible Building?
1. A Warm and Welcoming Environment
A warm and welcoming environment is more than just a feeling. It is something that can be built, in both the exterior and interior of the building. Is it obvious where the front door is? And when you get there, is there a power door opener? Is there shelter? A warm and welcoming environment is one where the built environment makes all users feel like they belong.
Examples of Accessible Features:
- A reception desk which is 36 inches high instead of the more common height of 42 inches. This allows the receptionist to make eye contact with someone using a wheeled mobility device. With the lower desk, I don’t feel like I am putting anyone out, by making the receptionist get up and walk around the desk to talk to me.
- An induction loop, also known as hearing loop or an FM loop, is a mini radio station that broadcasts to a small area. Anyone with a hearing aid can pick up the frequency. For example, airports install them because all their ambient noise can make announcements overwhelming for people who use hearing aids. At Roger’s Arena in Vancouver, the whole building has an induction loop, allowing visitors to tap into the PA system from the stands. It’s a huge benefit to the community, and it’s invisible. Additionally, it costs very little. Having one in a meeting room or a classroom would change how people participate and how much they comprehend.
2. An Emergency Evacuation Plan which Considers All Users
Building code works hard at getting me in a building, but is not concerned with getting me out. One of the biggest problems we have as a community is that according to code, egress does not have to be accessible. Elevators have plaques which say, in case of fire, use the stairs. Where’s the plaque that says what people with physical disabilities are supposed to do in case of fire?
Examples of Accessible Features:
- An area of refuge on each floor, where people who cannot use the stairs can gather and wait for firefighters. It needs a two hour fire separation and a separate air supply.
- An emergency power supply on all the power operated doors. If the power goes out, those doors are heavy. I would be effectively trapped.
- A visual fire alarm. If you don’t have one, the expectation is someone will tell someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing if there is a fire. However, that means these people can never stay late or work alone. That’s not practical, and is also a barrier to employment. As a barrier to employment, a lack of visual fire alarms is both a HR issue and a human rights issue.
3. Inclusive and Comprehensive Wayfinding
Consistent and intuitive sensory clues direct the user throughout the building. If you have intuitive wayfinding it touches so many different disability groups including the mental health community. It removes stress and anxiety about moving through public spaces. Signage is a huge part of it, but there’s so much more than that. It’s in the materials of the floor, the colors on the walls, and the placement of artwork. On BC Ferries, people kept getting lost trying to find their cars at the end of the trip. They now have giant images of starfish and other sea creatures on each of the parking levels, one for each floor. That’s wayfinding.
Examples of Accessible Features:
- Blade signage instead of flat signage for washrooms and other important locations allow people to locate their destination from the end of the hall. As a person with a physical disability, going the wrong way is very frustrating!
- The use of textures or colour schemes to indicate where you are in the space. At YVR airport, if you are standing on top of tile you are connected to an exit. If you are on carpet, you are connected to a gate. If you are on anything else, you are in retail. If you don’t need it, you would never notice it.
4. No Barriers to Employment
People who have physical disabilities should have access to a space as a consumer, visitor, and importantly, as an employee. Inclusive hiring opens up one of the largest untapped labour markets in Canada. According to the Conference Board of Canada, 57 percent of people with disabilities who are ready, willing and able to work can’t because of physically inaccessible workplaces. All employers have to do is let us in the door, literally. We are an incredible pool of talented people.
Examples of Accessible Features:
- Accessible washrooms for both staff and customers throughout the building.
- An inclusive hiring policy and disability awareness training in place for staff.
5. Circulation is Barrier-Free and Safe
The methods by which people move through the space, like stairs, corridors, elevators and doors, are built to accommodate all users, and take user safety into account.
Examples of Accessible Features:
- A mirror on the back of an elevator is a game changer from a safety perspective in certain elevators. Before I get into the elevator, I can make the decision to either get in to the elevator or not because I can see all the occupants and asses how safe I feel. The Disabled Women’s Network says that 73% of women with disabilities are sexually assaulted, which is a terrifying statistic. Additionally, if the elevator is crowded and you can’t turn your chair, it allows you to look in the mirror to see the exit and simply back up to get out.
- High contrast paint and glow-in-the-dark nosing on the stairs, as well as handrails on both sides of the stairs. During 9/11, hundreds of lives were saved due to glow-in-the-dark nosing on the stairs. After the power went out, people in the stairwells were still able to navigate the stairs safely.
Creating Inclusive Communities
Excellent meaningful access is invisible. Vancouver International Airport is one of the most accessible airports in the world. When I get asked for pictures of the accessible features, I have to say no. It is too comprehensive to capture in an image, and it is invisible if you do it right. We do exit surveys, and we ask people with disabilities how they found their experience using the airport. They say ‘it was great!’, but when we ask why, they don’t know. If they knew, it would be because they were taken down a different ramp or served at a different counter. Universal design creates environments which are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation. It creates inclusivity. Inclusion is not a single thing, it is an outcome. You take a barrier, and solve it. You make it accessible. And if you do that enough times, the building itself becomes accessible, and accessibility brings inclusion.
Inclusion is what happens when my 89-year –old mother comes to the game to watch her grandson without even thinking about it. But when she hesitates and stays home, because the stairs are too steep or because the sidewalk is not connected to the door, the fabric of the community starts to tear. When intergenerational living starts to improve, there’s less distance between grandmother and grandson, and between people and their community.
Creating meaningful access builds an inclusive community.
The biggest barrier to real access are attitudinal barriers. These are the preconceived notions of what people with disabilities are capable of and the lack of understanding of access issues not covered by building codes. We will only be truly accessible when we change perceptions about disability. If mom can’t hear as well as she used to, if dad’s losing his vision, if your sister’s arthritis is acting up, if your friend is in a cast – temporary or permanent, these are all disabilities.
So, what keeps people from embracing Universal Design? Here are five myths that need busting:
Myth #1: Universal Design is for people using wheelchairs.
Universal Design doesn’t single out any part of the community. It’s not design for people with disabilities – it’s just better design. Most people don’t realize they use Universal Design features every day. These include stairs and handrails that are safer and more convenient, automatic doors, touchless faucets, and ramps with slopes that make pushing strollers or shopping carts easier. When spaces accommodate children’s varying needs, when seniors can independently use washrooms and retain their dignity, when people can stay in their homes and communities longer, everyone wins.
Universal Design is liberating. It doesn’t rely on standard design parameters aimed at healthy males aged 18-55. When a place works for everyone - say, a park with even-surfacing on trails and around accessible playground equipment - suddenly grandma shows up. Suddenly more kids with a range of abilities show up. Because they can.
Myth #2: Disability happens to other people, so Universal Design doesn’t reflect my needs.
If you’re young, able bodied, and healthy, you might never ask yourself how well your home treats you. Yet, over time, climbing up and down the stairs over and over will naturally wear out your knees. Excessive reaching, twisting and turning is all good when you are fit, but as you age these all just become contributing factors to the wear and tear on bodies already fighting aging itself. Combined with all the other activities we do daily, why not support the body as best we can? Universal Design does this.
If the world meets your needs as is, you probably don’t think about accessibility. Because you’re doing fine, you don’t always think about what others are going through. It’s so important to change how we perceive disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. And the only minority group that you can join anytime.
It’s not about someone else. Any one of us could be in an accident, have a stroke, lose our hearing. The only questions are when will a disability happen to us, and how long will we live with one? Universal Design anticipates the needs of users now and well into their futures.
Including Universal Design in our buildings ensures the most good for the most people, with incredible social, cultural, and economic benefits.
Myth #3: Accessibility is covered by building codes.
Universal Design is about how people experience a building as a whole, from entering to way-finding to emergency exiting. This is real, meaningful access - recognizing the full spectrum of people with disabilities. It’s not the same as code minimums.
In the construction industry, codes provide necessary stability, but not true accessibility. A building might have a code compliant accessible washroom with all the amenities, then place it directly at the top of a staircase, because code says, ‘You have to have an accessible washroom.’ But that doesn’t necessarily mean the routes and features required to get to the washroom itself are accessible. Also, codes tend to be focused on mobility issues, spending little time or effort identifying barriers and obstacles for people with sensory or intellectual challenges.
Universal Design can include aging-in-place solutions at home such as a duplex power box for bedside charging of mobility equipment and personal assistive such as hearing aids or scooters. It could include reinforced ceilings and wall backings to allow the installation of lifts, grab bars, or exercise pulleys. It can be as simple as handrails in long hallways, or seating along extended pathways and/or corridors.
The best, most cost-effective way to address and evaluate accessibility is in a project’s early- planning stages. Retrofits are costly. Why build new mistakes?
Myth #4: Universal Design is too expensive.
To save money, people often insist on building things their way now, thinking they, or someone else, will adapt it later. It creates inadequate spaces with physical barriers. All that drywall and refuse will eventually go straight into a landfill. It’s neither cost effective nor environmentally friendly.
The longer seniors are independent, the longer they remain out of the healthcare system. If a family upgrades mom’s bathroom for $1,000, they save thousands in monthly care-home fees. A lot of seniors’ housing is built cheaply using outdated designs that don’t consider people’s real needs. They might use thick pile carpeting, which creates tripping hazards, or single-pane glass which doesn’t reduce noise for people with hearing loss.
Here’s a concrete example. A multi-unit residential project in BC discovered that installing an accessible 36-inch (915mm) doors would increase costs by over $7 per door. In a 100 unit project, with 5 doors per unit, the results was a significant increase in costs. A BC Housing audit later determined that by installing the larger doors, framing each one typically required two fewer studs, roughly a $10 savings. Having all doors accessible saved the project money.
Myth #5: Universal Design is uncreative, ugly, and boring.
If anyone can easily get to where they need to go, and do what they need to do in a space, that’s Universal Design in action.
If accessible features are not seamlessly integrated in the overall design of the space, then chances are they represent a segregated design approach that separates people with disabilities from the main service and feature areas. To someone able-bodied and fit, a hallway is just a corridor with walls, a ceiling, and a floor. But for people with vision disabilities, maybe it needs handrails for guidance and support. If it’s built slightly wider, it benefits people using walking aids, wheelchairs, or accompanied by a service animal. If the exit corners are cut off at 45-degree angles, it would make for easier passage for everyone.
Universal Design opens up new opportunities for architects and designers tasked with making spaces and accessible features look great. Removing edges and corners is safer, good for mobility, and has a spacious, luxurious effect. A friend of mine had a small elevator installed on the exterior of her 100-year-old home crafted in cedar to perfectly match the house. The elevator became a feature - not an eyesore. My mother didn’t want a grab bar in her bathroom because aesthetics were more of a concern to her than her personal safety. But the grab bar stigma dissolved when she saw beautiful collections that more resemble towel racks, but can hold up to 600 pounds.