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Resolvable barriers still impede accessibility

Jun 5, 2024 | Public | 0 comments

The building features that most commonly impede people with disabilities are not those that are the costliest or most structurally complicated to correct, new survey findings show. Respondents to a recent poll conducted on behalf of the Rick Hansen Foundation ranked the absence of handrails, grab bars, ramps and automatic door openers as the barriers to mobility they most frequently encounter outside their homes.

That’s somewhat discordant with the prevalent perception across the entire survey base of both the able-bodied and people with disabilities, in which 57 per cent of respondents hypothesized poor accessibility is related to the difficulty of renovating older buildings and 45 per cent identified high cost as a factor. Other results, which the Canadian market research firm, Leger, gathered from 1,500 respondents in February, reveal that 57 per cent rate the accessibility of the public and private spaces they frequent as “fair” or “poor” and 41 per cent have seen no improvement or a decline in the accessibility of those spaces over the past three years.

“People with disabilities continue to face major barriers to participating in everyday activities in their communities,” says Brad McCannell, vice president, access and inclusion, with the Rick Hansen Foundation. “The study shows that Canadians feel the accessibility of buildings and spaces in their city are improving too slowly or haven’t improved at all. Current practices simply aren’t meeting the real needs of the community.”

Although just 14 per cent of survey respondents defined themselves as a person with a disability, their answers to more detailed questions reveals that 35 per cent have a condition that is classified as a disability. As well, 31 per cent have a family member with a disability whom they live with or help to care for, and 40 per cent have friends or close acquaintances who have a disability.

Mobility and/or hearing impairments are most common, cited by 26 per cent of survey respondents, while 8 per cent report vision impairment and 5 per cent have a neurological condition or an acquired brain injury. Nearly 20 per cent of respondents experience chronic pain and more than 20 per cent have another chronic health condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or autoimmunity.

Approximately 900 respondents report they occasionally or frequently encounter barriers to access. Among this group, 36 per cent experienced obstructions in homes that are not their own, 33 per cent flagged festivals/special events and public washrooms, and 32 per cent cited outdoor public places such as sidewalks, pathways and parks. Office/professional buildings, grocery stores, restaurants and other retail/commercial venues have presented impediments for 29 per cent, while 24 per cent confronted barriers in sports and recreation centres.

Public facilities have a moderately better track record, with 23 per cent of respondents reporting they’ve encountered barriers in hospitals, libraries and city halls, and 16 per cent facing barriers in schools and/or on post-secondary campuses. However, perhaps particularly notable in the latter case, just 10 per cent of the total survey base is between the ages of 18 and 34, while 57 per cent is 55 or older.

Calls for easy fixes outnumber those for capital-intensive undertakings

Drilling down to the types of barriers encountered, 579 respondents reported 12 different scenarios outside their homes, with each, on average, experiencing 2.8 of them. Related to relatively low-cost features, 42 per cent of respondents report the absence of hand rails or grab bars; 38 per cent report a lack of ramps or sloped pathways; 36 per cent report lack of automatic door openers; and 18 per cent report lack of appropriate directional signage. Narrowing the focus further to 138 respondents with physical mobilities who are employed in workplaces outside their homes, 19 per cent report their workstation design is unsuitable.

Turning to inadequacies that likely require greater capital investment to resolve, 24 per cent of respondents who have encountered barriers outside their homes report narrow doorways and hallways; 21 per cent report inadequate elevator access; and 21 per cent report unsuitable flooring surfaces.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has recently opened a new round of funding to support small-scale projects aimed at improving physical access or implementing supportive technology for people with disabilities. Up to $14.7 million has been earmarked to provide up $125,000 per project to upgrade: public facilities that host programs and services in which people with disabilities may choose or need to participate; or workplaces where people with disabilities are or could be employed.

Not-for-profit organizations, private companies with fewer than 100 employees, municipalities, Indigenous organizations, territorial governments and organizations that provide emergency, temporary or transitional housing can apply for the facility improvement funds until July 23. Grants will be available as set amounts for a designated list of common upgrades, including: ramps; accessible washrooms; accessible doors; elevators; accessible lifts; pool lifts; accessible playgrounds; multi-sensory rooms and stations; accessible parking; accessible drop-off areas; and accessible electric vehicle charging stations, or based on the project-specific budgets of other types of initiatives.

Indigenous organizations, organizations based in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut or other designated rural or remote areas, emergency and homeless shelters, foodbanks and meal providers and charities that offer secondhand clothing can obtain funding to cover 100 per cent of eligible project costs. Other grant recipients must supply 25 per cent of the amount from their own funds or other secured sources.

“We acknowledge the impact organizations across the country are having in building truly accessible communities and workplaces,” says Canada’s Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities, Kamal Khera. “Through the Enabling Accessibility Fund, our government is proud to support those community champions who, project by project, are creating a Canada for everyone, where barrier-free access and disability inclusion are the norm.”

The overwhelming majority of respondents to the Rick Hansen Foundation/Leger survey agreed it is important for people with disabilities to be able to participate in the community and the economy. They also prioritized accessible housing, initiatives to ensure buildings and public spaces are accessible and efforts to educate Canadians at large about accessibility issues. Concurrently, 28 per cent attributed barriers in the built environment to failure to adequately enforce accessibility regulations and to neglectful designers and builders. Another 23 per cent suggested existing accessibility standards are too lax.

Respondents were also most inclined to hold designers, developers and building owners/mangers to account, with 70 per cent concluding that this group has “significant responsibility” for accessibility. Fewer expressed such high expectations of the provincial (64 per cent), municipal (63 per cent) or federal (57 per cent) governments.

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