Friday, 24 November 2017

Age-Free Environments Don't Create Themselves

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 01 May 2007 00:00

If you are starting to feel old, perhaps you should blame the buildings in which you live, work and play. They are not the age-free environments that we need to support us as we move through different stages of life.

The current "green" re-evaluation of how well we treat the environment provides an excellent context for a closer look at how well our built environments treat us.

We're not as old as our buildings sometimes make us feel. Steep stairways, endless halls, heavy double doors, slippery marble floors and stiff door knobs are not the first signs that you are getting old or that your strength is failing, but rather proof that too many buildings are not people friendly.

"Accessibility" means being able to move around a building and its multiple levels without obstruction, particularly at entrances and in bathrooms. How would you rate the buildings you frequent?

Anyone who has visited an airport recently knows the "physical endurance" design philosophy that persists in today's travel experience: long waits in line, long walks to everything, short distances between seats on the plane. Airport services intended to improve access for travellers with disabilities frequently reveal poor design, inadequate planning and consistent inconvenience.

Concerns voiced about our aging population and "senior friendly" buildings often give the impression that poor design is not the problem, but that people are at fault for getting older. In reality, our buildings don't appear to be equally accessible throughout all life stages. They also do not acknowledge individual differences in our physical makeup and strength, but seem to discriminate against everyone but adults with peak strength and agility.

Stereotypes of aging, many based in the last two centuries, depict this natural process as an inevitable march toward dependency, frailty and senility. In this century, research continues to prove what individuals eventually discover from personal experience: aging is inevitable, but dependency, frailty and senility are optional. We've learned that "if you don't use it you lose it" is as true for brain cells as it is for muscles. Lifelong learning and wellness exercise programs are now considered essential individual commitments for an active, independent extended life.

Retirement housing has begun the shift toward age-free thinking: moving from isolated "warehousing" situated far from amenities to independence-enhancing, life-affirming communities actively interconnected with their neighbourhoods. Have other types of buildings kept pace with this shift away from out-dated views on user needs and diversity?

Modifications to the built environment are usually directed to "the elderly and the disabled," but in truth many aspects of design and construction are far from people oriented at the start. Age-free environments emphasize flexibility and adapt to users rather than forcing individuals to make do in a hostile space. Universal and barrier-free design principles feature wide hallways, excellent lighting, level entrances, and ergonomically-designed furniture. Often, the solutions are simple. For instance, levered handles suit all users while door knobs challenge anyone with small hands, carpel-tunnel wrists, "tennis" elbow, a bad back or burdens to carry.

People with disabilities know that the problem lies with design flaws, not with them. The able-bodied tend to think any defect they notice is minor, or that they alone have a problem, and so they rarely draw attention to a design issue. This has left those with disabilities and their advocates to battle for improvements on their own.

Their efforts not only benefit those suffering physical limitations arising from injuries or illness that may not meet disability criteria, but also help the able-bodied. Watch the number of able-bodied but loaded-down people who push the automatic-door-open button and you'll realize that everyone wants consistent, easy access to public spaces and workplaces. From parents struggling with toddlers and buggies to business people juggling notebooks and briefcases while they send voice or text messages, people want more from our buildings.

Raising a collective voice to ensure that our built environments are the best they can be makes sense. Property owners, architects, developers and other professionals are not trying to keep anyone out or to make life a struggle, but they need to hear from those who use their buildings and see room for improvement.

For ideas on those improvements: The Ontario March of Dimes AccessAbility Services, "In an effort to help make homes and communities more accessible, the Ontario March of Dimes offers a host of AccessAbility Services ... designed to assist adults with physical disabilities to gain independence and greater mobility."

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PJ Wade

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