New Canadian Accessibility Standard for Buildings Benefits Everyone, Disability Advocates Say

By Wanyee LiStarMetro Vancouver

VANCOUVERPeople with disabilities often get their own cashier line, their own bathroom stall, their own entrance and that type of building design amounts to segregation, disability advocates say.

Part of the problem is that Canada did not have a standard for accessibility design in buildings, said Brad McCannell, vice-president of access and inclusion with the Rick Hansen Foundation.

(left) Brad McCannell, vice president of access and inclusion with the Rick Hansen Foundation, (centre) Kirsten Sutton, vice president of and managing director at SAP Labs Canada, and Rick Hansen, founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation, celebrate a ‘Accessibility Certified Gold’ rating at SAP Labs’ Yaletown office.

So he decided to make one, called the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification. He hopes it will become the new industry standard and do for accessibility what LEED did for sustainability.

“Everybody agreed that things have to be more accessible,” he said. “But nobody agreed on what accessibility was.”

Now, building designers have a standard to follow, he said.

Features as simple as counter-height, paint patterns, and way-finding signage can help a building achieve a higher accessibility rating.

The Rick Hansen Foundation awarded a ‘Accessibility Certified Gold’ rating to SAP Labs in Vancouver on Friday, for the accessibility-friendly renovations it recently completed in their Yaletown office.

The office spans an entire city block and includes wide pathways to accommodate two people in wheelchairs travelling side-by-side, adjustable furniture for people with varying abilities, and an accessible workout gym.

Designing for accessibility means not singling out people who have cognitive or physical limitations, said Kirsten Sutton, vice-president and managing director at SAP Labs Canada. She gave a tour of the tech company’s office on Friday and pointed out the bathroom there was no door at the entrance of the gender-neutral washroom and all stalls were accessible.

“It’s not about cost,” said Sutton, speaking about the decision to renovate.

“It’s about returns in productivity of our employees. We want to create a culture and the environment to retain employees, and to attract new ones.”

Brad McCannell, vice president of access and inclusion with the Rick Hansen Foundation, leads a tour about the accessibility features at SAP Labs Yaletown Office.

Allowing Canadians with disabilities 550,000 people to join the workforce will increase GDP by $16.8 billion by 2030, according to The Conference Board of Canada.

Businesses that have a customer-service component need to shift their mindset as well, McCannell said. For instance, banks could make their branches more accessible by lowering all the bank-till counters and not just the one at the end, specifically for wheelchair users.

“No other community would put up with segregated service,” he said.

And the number of people with disabilities is only going to grow in the coming decades as Canada’s population ages, said McCannell.

Currently, one in seven Canadians have a disability, according to Statistics Canada. In 20 years, the number will grow to one in five, say disability advocates.

“You could join us anytime,” said McCannell, who uses a manual wheelchair.

“You could misstep, you could have a heart attack, you could suffer a stroke. You could join our community at any moment. In fact, you will. There’s no question.”

Kirsten Sutton, vice president and managing director at SAP Labs Canada points out a wayfinding sign at her company’s office in Vancouver. The building received a “Accessibility Certified Gold” rating from the Rick Hansen Foundation.

That begs the question of why an accessibility standard for buildings wasn’t mandated earlier, said Jane Dyson, executive director of the Disability Alliance of BC.

“You see these beautiful new buildings and they’ll have a couple of steps up to the front door. A couple of steps no one really thinks about that. But if you’re a wheelchair user, it makes it basically impossible to enter.”

Disability advocate Luke Galvani agreed.

“The standard is upright, able bodied and I think we need to somehow change that.”

The Simon Fraser University communications student also questioned whether the rating system would become prevalent enough to encourage designers to think about accessibility before construction crews break ground.

“The best way to ensure needs are met is if you address and evaluate accessibility from the beginning.”

While participation in the new standard is voluntary, the B.C. government is supporting the initiative by granting the Rick Hansen Foundation $9 million to develop the program. The province is also covering the rating fee for 1,100 buildings, until March 2019. About 800 buildings have already applied, according to the Rick Hansen Foundation website.

Dyson suggested the province could take it one step farther and update its building code. But building codes are not the best mechanism to affect change, said McCannell. He emphasized his rating system has little to do with building codes. Something as simple as using contrasting colours for baseboards, for instance, could help a building’s accessibility ranking because it makes hallways safer for people who have trouble with depth perception, he said.

The Rick Hansen Accessibility Certification program is available to businesses nation wide and several Ontario businesses have signed up already, said McCannell.

The Canadian government has signalled it is working on accessibility legislation that would improve hiring practices, transportation options, and customer service for people with disabilities.

Correction – May 28, 2018: This article was edited from a previous version that said the Rick Hansen Foundation awarded its first ‘Accessibility Certified Gold’ rating to SAP Labs. In fact, this is the first time the gold rating has been awarded to a business.

Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering urban affairs and new technology. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii

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