Laws Alone Aren’t The Answer for Improving Disability Access, Expert at Ottawa Summit Says

Blair Crawford
Updated: May 9, 2019

When it comes to accessibility, casinos lead the way.

“Las Vegas figured out a long time ago that older people and seniors were the ones who sit at slot machines,” said Brad McCannell, vice-president of access and inclusion for the Rick Hansen Foundation.

“They started accommodation long before the ADA because they saw it’s the little things, McCannell said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The casinos replaced the standard slot machine stools with sturdier chairs with back rests and armrests that older people need to push off to stand up.

“If you want them to stay there, give them the chairs they need,” he said.

It’s that simple shift in thinking that’s needed as communities work to improve accessibility, a central theme of the two-day National Accessibility Summit, which began in Ottawa Thursday. McCannell was one of a number of experts, advocates and policymakers at the forum, hosted by Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services, Procurement and Accessibility. The meeting comes as parliamentarians debate Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, which the government is trying to pass before MPs rise for their summer break.

Qualtrough called the bill “the most significant piece of legislation on disability rights since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“It sends a message to Canadians that people with disabilities will no longer be treated as an afterthought,” she said.

According to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey, one in five Canadians more than 6.2 million people has one or more physical or mental disabilities. The incidence rises with increasing age, with 13 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24, 20 per cent of those of working age and 38 per cent of those 65 and older dealing with a disability.

While the bill would provide national standards for accessibility only Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have provincial standards it’s important to realize that laws alone aren’t the answer, McCannell said.

“Codes don’t work,” he said, citing poor enforcement and a lack of understanding of the needs of the disabled.

“Unless the design community understands the issues, we’ll never get there.”

As an example, the common 1:12 slope of a wheelchair ramp might seem to provide access to a building, but is too steep for many to manage.

“Going up a ramp is easy. Going down is hard. If you fall going up, you land on your hands. If you fall going down, you land on your head,” McCannall said.

Handrails are another accommodation that are often misunderstood, one that the Rick Hansen Foundation helps able-body people understand by having them spend a day in a wheelchair, or use devices that simulate visual or hearing impairment.

“You start to understand that hand rails aren’t just for support, they’re way finders,” he said. “If you’re a person with visual impairment and the hand rail levels off at the landing. it’s telling you ‘there’s a landing here. Watch your step.’ When you get to the bottom, it doesn’t just end. It levels off and tells you, ‘you’re at the bottom now’.”

But there are even simpler adjustments employers can make to accommodate employees’ needs, the “low-hanging fruit” that are easy and obvious to offer.

“I’m a wheel chair guy. Getting on a bus in rush hour is ‘Oh my God!’ So can I go to my employer and say, ‘Can I start at 9:30 instead of 8:30?’ That literally changes my life.”

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