The road to accessibility has been one of an educational nature for First West Credit Union.
That experience is common for many organizations that do more than settle for the bare minimum of what building codes offer to welcome all people through their doors. Also expected for many venturing out on this path is the fear of the unknown. To guide them on their journey, First West engaged the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) program.
“RHFAC really opened our eyes and made us see our built environments in a new way – that it’s a journey that will require us to re-evaluate and evolve over time to ensure we are creating spaces without barriers,” said Liz Bailey-Connor, Chief People and Culture Officer for First West.
First West is British Columbia’s third-largest credit union with 46 branches in communities in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, north coast, southern interior, north Okanagan, Vancouver Island, and Gulf Islands. One of its goals is to foster spaces of belonging for members, employees, and communities.
“A lot of the values our credit union was founded on naturally lend themselves towards being inclusive and being accessible—helping our members and communities thrive—but we weren’t certain how to best put that into action when it came to accessibility and our built environments,” said Brieann Spencer, Leadership & Learning Advisor for First West and lead for First West’s Healthy Workplace initiative. “When we came across the RHFAC program, the light went on.”
The First Steps are the Most Difficult
Starting in 2017, First West worked with RHFAC to have nine branches rated for accessibility. RHFAC is a rating system that provides an overview of the overall level of meaningful accessibility of a building for people with physical disabilities. An RHFAC Professional conducts the rating and gives organizations a scorecard that serves as a snapshot of the site’s current level of meaningful accessibility through the lens of people with mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities. It also serves as a roadmap of where to improve.
One of the initial worries for First West was that many of its locations are leased, so there wasn’t a lot of control over aspects of the built environment. As it turns out, however, there was nothing for First West to worry about. All nine buildings achieved RHF Accessibility Certification, including its Cloverdale, Tsawwassen, Kamloops, and Duncan branches and they received $25,000 to help fund the upgrades from the RHF BC Accessibility Grants program in 2020.
“The very first walk through with the RHFAC Professional was eye-opening,” said Spencer. “We learned so much about what our members with disabilities experience in our branches.”
The richness of what First West learned through the process of using the RHFAC was really the tipping point. Not only did the credit union get nine locations rated, but it went on to create a set of standards to follow for every each of their upcoming renovations and new builds.
Some of the changes made included universal accessible washrooms with panic buttons, working automatic doors, wayfinding signage with braille at accessible heights, pullout counters and reachable microwaves in the staff kitchens for wheelchair users, elevators, sound-absorbing panels, contrasting colours, space to accommodate all mobility devices, and accessible door handles.
One of the biggest changes that occurred was the shifting of culture. Instead of conversations being centered around costs, they became focused on the discovery of creative solutions.
“We want to be the most inclusive and accessible space that we can possibly be, and we want members and employees to be able to move, work, and connect freely in our spaces in a way that works for them and allows them to fully participate,” said Spencer.
Giving Back as a Gesture of Appreciation
As First West prides itself on investing in the communities it serves, it donated a total of $24,000 to three organizations in its trade areas, organizations who are making a difference to inclusion for people with disabilities: Semiahmoo House Society serving South Surrey and White Rock, Pathways Abilities Society serving Kelowna area, and Clements Centre for Families in Duncan.
On top of that, First West donated an additional $25,000 to the Rick Hansen Foundation.
“The work with the Rick Hansen Foundation provided so much value to us as an organization that we want to support their mission of creating a world where everyone can go everywhere, and this is just the start of a relationship with these organizations and the communities they serve,” said Bailey-Connor.