The City of Surrey is establishing itself as a true leader in accessibility. With 43 Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) ratings to date, resulting in 25 RHF Accessibility Certified and 5 RHFAC Gold sites, Surrey, BC boasts the most ratings and certifications of any municipality in Canada — or of any participant in the entire program.
“We are determined to become the most accessible city in B.C.” says Tara Roberts, City of Surrey Manager, Support Services and Accessibility. In order to help meet that goal, the City has been working closely with RHFAC to rate their sites and better understand their level of meaningful access. They also applied for several BC Accessibility Grants — funding provided thanks to the provincial government for sites that have received an RHFAC rating looking to make their spaces more accessible— and received five grants to implement the improvements in several facilities across the city.
“The certification program was a stepping stone for us,” says Roberts. “As soon as we completed that first project, we thought, what else can we do better? How can we better serve our citizens, our staff, and everyone who interacts with us? Our Building Department developed a completely new perspective. They’re so on board with working toward this goal.” Equipped with what they learned and funding support, Surrey set off to make their spaces even more accessible.
Unwin Park, North Surrey Sport and Ice Complex and Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre are just three of the facilities the City can now boast about. At the beginning of the City’s accessibility journey, the main challenges were that many washrooms lacked even the simplest accessibility considerations, like automatic door openers, and accessible parking was limited.
Unwin Park, a popular family gathering place which includes a kids’ splash pad, sports courts and an outdoor public pool, has been one beneficiary of a BC Accessibility Grant. The funding was used to make the park more accessible for families with parents or children with disabilities or limited mobility, including accessible play structures, a sensory play centre, a lift to the pool and accessible washrooms. “Imagine planning a fun family outing on a hot day, and getting to the water park to find that you or your child can’t use the bathroom?” Roberts says. Thanks to the accessibility improvements, “everyone gets to enjoy Unwin now.”
At the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, the City wanted to create a comfortable space for families with children on the autism spectrum (Surrey is home to the highest population of individuals diagnosed with autism in B.C.), so they created sensory spaces with sensory toys, noise-cancelling headphones and picture communication tools. The City also offers sensory spaces at its Signature Events like Canada Day, so families with members who are autistic can enjoy fireworks and other attractions in a safe and comfortable environment.
“Being able to do something innovative was important to us,” says Roberts.
The City was not just making improvements to sites that have already been built. Karin Pasqua, Accessibility & Universal Design Specialist at the City of Surrey and a designated RHFAC Professional, along with Tara and the rest of the team at the City, were able to implement much of what they learned on sites still in the construction process. The new North Surrey Sport and Ice Complex opened in February 2020 with enough accessible features to earn the City its 5th RHFAC Gold. Features include accessible washrooms, removable benches in the player and penalty boxes, and permanent transparent puck board so para ice hockey players can stay in their sledges and continue to see the game. Recently, during a para hockey event, a young mother approached Roberts and relayed that when she discovered she was pregnant, she dreamed about her son playing hockey. “When he was born with a disability,” she said, “I didn’t think that was going to happen.” By making the complex accessible and promoting para hockey, the City helped that dream come true for her.
“It was one of the defining moments of my career,” Roberts beams.
Inspired by what Surrey has accomplished, other Canadian municipalities have reached out to learn more about accessible design and certification. Roberts has spoken with city staff in Vancouver, Langley, and as far away as Hamilton Ontario and Charlottetown, PEI.