By 1995, all federal and most public buildings were mandated by the National Building Code to provide accessibility for people with disabilities. The heavy doorknob without a lever, doorways too narrow for wheelchairs, or letters on signs too small or unreadable - barriers to accessibility were set to undergo a makeover.
But do the 4.4 million Canadians identified by Statistics Canada as having a physical, sensory, or intellectual disability really have the proper access today? The answer is not by a long shot.
Nineteen years ago, the concept of barrier-free design outlined in Section 3.8 of the NBC cemented the standards of accessibility for people with disabilities in Canada. Physical roadblocks within buildings were to be replaced and a minimum building design would allow people with disabilities to gain mobile accessibility. Yet the responsibility to enforce the NBC within each provincial and territorial jurisdiction differed. And subsequent modifications to the code were not universally recognized.
For new, existing, or renovated buildings, provincial codes should provide minimum standards for barrier-free accessibility, but in many cases it’s almost impossible to keep up with buildings redesigned to address accessibility issues, says Brad McCannell, president of Canadian Barrier Free Design Inc (CBFD) in Vancouver.
“In the old days, even ten years ago, building codes mostly reflected the needs of a majority of the population, but building codes can’t keep up with the changing demographics. We’re about twenty years away from 40 per cent of the population being over 65 years old and building codes don’t reflect that at all,” McCannell says.
A C6/7 quadriplegic, McCannell relies on a service dog to direct him in and out of many buildings on a daily basis. His frustration escalates as he describes the difficulty of navigating facilities without ramps, automatic doors, or levers on door handles. Unless a circumstance is exceptional, revisions to the NBC are normally undertaken over a five-to-seven-year period. That's way too long for McCannell.
“It takes three to seven years to update building codes. It’s just not possible for a building code to keep up with the changing demographics of a community through the way it’s currently set up,” McCannell says.
Fortunately, new buildings have to do more than just follow minimum standards of the code. A local building department is contacted, permits issued, and additional modifications to the code applied, whether they are enforced locally or provincially.
“Sometimes we take things out of the NBC and adopt it into the Alberta building codes,” says Linnie Tse, the administrator of barrier-free policy in Alberta. “Because the NBC is a model for the whole country, if there’s anything in there we think would work, we adopt it. If there’s anything that we need to add that is extra into the code, then we do, but it comes specific to Alberta.”
Still, each province and territory establishes its own version of the NBC, adopting or modifying it to comply with their own building standards. The varied application of the code amongst provinces and territories is problematic, says Tse, who uses a wheelchair after suffering two strokes and a viral infection at 25. "Some things are similar across the provinces, but then there are other things that aren't," says Tse, noting changes to the code are implemented, but usually by request. "Changes only come about if people feel there is something lacking and they send in their applications on why they want something changed."
Additional confusion is created when those responsible for building for accessibility - architects, designers, and engineers - are required to adhere to both national and provincial standards. With the complexity of standards applicable on so many levels by so many different people, the initial focus on accessibility can become completely lost, says McCannell. "When you follow building codes in your project it's the same as saying, 'We're doing the very least we can possibly do.'"
Never mind the fact that private buildings tend to be less accessible than those owned and operated by federal and provincial governments. And most don't even begin to address the rand of disabilities that exist, says Bobbi Moore, who has cerebral palsy and is a spokeswoman for Ontario March of Dimes. "Most buildings are not fully accessible and that becomes a problem because everybody has a different meaning for accessibility," says Moore. "When I go into a building and I have to use a washroom I can use the normal size stall, I just need buttons. Some of the buildings I‘ve been in say they’re accessible because they have a wheelchair accessible stall, but there are no buttons to get in."
Moore describes a time when she was asked to make a list of what an accessible building should have. The list was four pages long. For Moore it was standard, but after showing it to a friend she realized that it’s hard for people without disabilities to grasp what accessibility truly means.
“When I go into a building, I don’t look for it to be accessible just for me. I try to go into a building to try and make it as accessible for as many people as I can…to me if a building is fully accessible to someone with a different disability, they feel a lot more welcome. Their nervousness is made a lot less when they know it’s okay that they can get into the washroom, into the office without worrying of breaking the door, or they can stand because there is a bar available,” says Moore. “The worry of going into new buildings is exacerbated by the fact we’re worried about falling or breaking something because it’s not fully accessible.”
Tse notes accessible buildings should enable people with disabilities to function independently. “Spaces need to be accessible and adaptable so people with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities have equal access and dignity,” explains Tse.
“CFBD brings universal design into the picture,” says McCannell. “We consider the demographics and users of the building in the current community.” Working on one of many projects, including the 2010 Winter Olympics and Vancouver International Airport, McCannell believes integrating building codes on par with accommodating all disabilities is overdue and a critical necessity lacking in today’s standards. “As manager or a planner, if you’re trying to build or maintain a building based on the current building codes alone, you’ve already lost the game." jp