Access to Opportunity

We hear a lot about why improving accessibility is the right thing to do. But improved access is not just a question of human rights. It’s an economic imperative.  

A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada has made a powerful business case for improving accessibility in the built environment. People with disabilities are a large and growing consumer group. They currently represent 14 per cent, or $164 billion in consumer spending. By 2030, spending by this group is anticipated to grow at three times the pace of the overall population, representing 21 per cent of the total consumer market, or $316 billion annually. While removing physical barriers in our buildings means people with varying disabilities can maintain greater independence, it also means they’ll have increased employment opportunities and new ways of contributing financially to their families and communities.  

An RHFAC professional conducting an accessibility rating.
An RHFAC professional conducting an accessibility rating.

 The bottom line is, as a community of people with disabilities continues to grow and become more active, there is a greater need for the built environment, including housing, to meet the real needs of the consumer. And the payback is enormous. The Conference Board of Canada report confirms that real access to the overall built environment would allow over half a million Canadians with disabilities to find employment, increasing our country’s GDP by $16.8 billion. So we need to ask ourselves, if there were 17 billion dollars’ worth of gold in the ground, would you just leave it there, or would you do everything you could to get access to it and maximize the return on investment? That’s what’s happening right now. By denying meaningful access to people with disabilities we are leaving $17 billion dollars on the table.  

 Accessibility matters 

In the rush to ‘green’ it’s often forgotten that no building or site is truly sustainable if doesn’t first sustain the people meant to use it. Meaningful access is determined by how each person experiences the entire building as a whole, from the moment they reach the door, enter, and way-find throughout, all the way to leaving and even to emergency exiting/planning. Accessible environments must anticipate the needs of people of all ages, stages, and abilities, from young children to seniors. 

 To become a barrier-free environment for the Hard-of-Hearing (HOH), Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre invested in an audio frequency induction loop system that allows HOH patrons to pick up audio directly by hearing aids, without the need for a special receiver.
To become a barrier-free environment for the Hard-of-Hearing (HOH), Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre invested in an audio frequency induction loop system that allows HOH patrons to pick up audio directly by hearing aids, without the need for a special receiver.

 There’s no better time than now to rethink how we access and use our buildings. Today, one in seven Canadian adults identifies as having some form of disability and there are now more Canadians aged 65 and older than 15 and under. Due in part to our large and aging Baby Boomer population, the overall number of people with disabilities is expected to increase to one in five Canadians within the next 20 years, affecting up to nine million people. Simply put, in the new millennium it’s normal to have some form of disability. 

Every day across Canada these people struggle to find housing, access spaces like offices, community centres, and retail stores because of physical barriers and obstacles created literally by design. Many of the solutions are simple. And often, once made aware of the real barriers and obstacles to people with disabilities, design and planning teams can easily resolve these issues. Therefore, to increase the overall accessibility of the built environment as part of the normal design process, planners and designers need the tools to accurately measure current levels of accessibility as well as provide a roadmap towards greater access as part of long-term planning. 

 Building Canadian communities for the future 

The first step towards creating inclusive buildings and spaces is to identify their current level of accessibility. The Rick Hansen Foundation has created the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) program, a LEED-style rating system that measures the accessibility of buildings and sites. At its simplest, the RHFAC is a national scale for accessibility that standardizes what accessibility really means and how it’s applied. The program promotes increased access through the adoption of Universal Design principles. It also trains professional assessors to rate buildings based on their level of meaningful access using a consistent methodology. RHFAC Accessibility Assessor training is available this spring in Vancouver (Vancouver Community College) and Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Community College). The program is expected to roll out to the rest of Canada in the months ahead. 

 RHF Accessibility Certification is currently available at no-cost to British Columbian non-profit organizations, municipalities, and commercial properties thanks to generous funding from the Province of British Columbia. Organizations that are rated via the RHFAC are also eligible to apply for a grant of up to $20,000 to improve the accessibility of their location through the RHF BC Accessibility Grants Program.  

The viability of our communities depends on planning and design that embraces older adults and seniors. Aging-in-place solutions, accessible environments, and intergenerational living all rely on the practical application of Universal Design to maintain their communities. Accessible buildings appeal to more tenants, serve more customers, and attract more employees. Accessible residential units and community facilities makes good economic sense, while giving every Canadian the ability to participate and live to their full potential. 

This need for real meaningful access across the full built environment has already triggered provincial legislation establishing access requirements well beyond old code minimums in Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. And the Federal government’s Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities is promising national legislation on accessibility this year. The RHFAC provides an opportunity for builders to plan for these upcoming legislated changes and normalize the inclusion of people with disabilities in the design process on future projects and renovations. The population is aging; building codes are changing; Federal legislation is looming – are you ready to meet the new demands for accessibility?  

Brad McCannell is Vice President, Access and Inclusion, at the Rick Hansen FoundationSince founding Canadian Barrier Free Design Inc. in 1992, Brad has been a leader in the field of accessibility and has extensive experience in the application of Universal Design across the built environment. Contact Brad at [email protected] 

Photos courtesy of Rick Hansen Foundation. Learn more at  

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