There’s Much Room for Improvement on Accessibility Issues

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 14 September 2021 00:00

During the Canadian election campaign, one topic that receiving little attention from the political parties or the media is accessibility for people living with disabilities. 

To bring some attention to the topic, the Rick Hansen Foundation and the Angus Reid Institute conducted a survey of people living with disabilities as well as others from the general public with no disability.

Two-thirds of those living with a disability said the question of how best to support those with a disability is not receiving enough attention. Eighty-six per cent said there is still much room for improvement when it comes to having their daily activities affected at least occasionally by their condition.

Four in five of those surveyed, both those with a disability and without, say there should be a harmonized national standard of accessibility. That was one of the promises made in the Liberal Party of Canada’s election platform.

Support for improved accessibility is strong. Ninety-three per cent of those surveyed agreed that accessibility is a basic human right, and 91 per cent say it should be a priority, with 62 per cent saying universal accessibility should be the goal.

As party leaders were promising billions of dollars worth of spending on new infrastructure, the survey asked respondents about where accessibility fits into the plans. Almost all the respondents said taxpayer-funded projects should be held to the highest existing accessibility standards, and that money should not be spent building projects that create new barriers to accessibility. 

Asked whether the priority on a new project should be accessibility or the environment, 56 per cent of respondents said both, with 18 per cent opting for the environmental concerns and 19 per cent going for accessibility. 

But despite the widespread support for accessibility, a great deal of work still needs to be done. A column by John Rae, a member of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities’ national council, was published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last year. Rae wrote, “It is astonishing how many barriers still exist to the full participation of persons with disabilities. Weak building codes aren’t adequate to create full, physical access to our social spaces. There is not nearly enough accessible and affordable housing. Transportation systems are only slowly being retrofitted to make them more accessible. Unemployment and extreme poverty rates for persons with disabilities have barely improved, yet the cutbacks to essential services keep coming.”

Rae says every new government program, grant, contract or piece of legislation needs to be looked at through a “disability lens” to demonstrate that no new barriers are being created in the project. He says government and business must have smart procurement policies that ensure only products that are accessible will be purchased.

Although Canada has various pieces of equal access legislation, there isn’t adequate enforcement of these laws. “This government neglect of equality laws has created expectations within the disability community that are not being realized in practice,” says Rae.

People who have disabilities are not well represented in corporate boardrooms where decisions about what new technologies will be used are being made. They are not in newsrooms where it’s decided what stories will be covered and they are not well represented in government, he says.

Some of the specific challenges in the built environment for disabled people were spelled out in a report by the Canadian Standards Association

Inaccessible entrances and exits to public buildings and private business such as stores were a top concern. Push buttons for powered doors are located in difficult to access places; doors are too heavy or don’t open automatically; and wheelchair accessible doors and ramps are either absent or not in an appropriate location. 

Access to washrooms is a big problem – buildings either have no accessible washrooms or they are ineffectively designed, says the CSA report.

Parking is another major issue – the lack of accessible spaces and location of the spaces relative to the building entrance is a recurring problem. A respondent to the Angus Reid survey wrote, “My daughter is in a wheelchair. We were going to a doctor’s appointment in winter. There were two disability spaces, both in use. I had to use street parking on a busy street and lift her wheelchair over the snowbank, then try and get her over into the chair….So upsetting, frustrating and not safe.”

Green and recreational spaces are often not accessible. CSA says playgrounds in schools and parks often have surfaces such as wood chips that make them inaccessible for those in mobility devices. In national parks, the report says accommodations for wheelchairs is an issue.

Sidewalks are often obstructed or uneven, and interlocking brick sidewalks are tricky for those who are unsteady on their feet or use a mobility device. In many communities, lack of winter maintenance is also a problem.

CSA says there are also challenges with wayfinding and signage for people with vision loss. It says specific barriers include the lack of, or incorrect braille on signs and elevators, or the absence of signs in alternative formats.

“My mother was legally blind and there were very few provisions made for the sign impaired,” wrote a Manitoba respondent to the Angus Reid survey. “Tripping on carpets, low lighting, no signs on bathroom doors and non-clearly marked directions for one way exits/walkways were a common occurrence.”

Rae says a change in attitude is needed within the broader society. “Reports confirm that attitudes toward persons with disabilities have improved only slowly, and many still question the value of a disabled person’s life,” says Rae. “New approaches are desperately needed and governments at all levels must take the lead.”

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Jim Adair

Jim Adair has been writing about Canadian real estate, home building and renovation issues for more than 40 years. He is the former editor of Canada’s leading trade magazine for real estate professionals, as well as several home building, décor and renovation titles. You can contact him at [email protected]

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