Getting Around

Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies (CCDS) in Winnipeg launched a three-year national initiative called Collaborative Knowledge Building and Action for VisitAble Housing in Canadian Cities Project (otherwise known by the much-shorter title “VisitAbility Project”). This project, funded by the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program – Disability Component, is a movement that has at its core the incredibly ambitious goal of changing home construction practices so that virtually all new homes offer a few basic accessibility features that make them easier for people with mobility difficulties to live in and visit.

While no one likes to have to think about the mobility issues they will face as they age (after all, as David Allison notes in his new book The Stackable Boomer, while their bodies may disagree, in their heads Boomers still think they are 35), this is a growing issue facing all forms of real estate development. Statistics show that one in six Canadians (14.3 per cent) has a physical disability, and one third of all Canadians aged 65 years or over have mobility problems. This cohort of adults aged 65 and over is an interesting one as it relates to this growing issue: they currently account for 14.1 per cent of the Canadian population, but will number more than one-fifth of the population by 2026 and one-quarter of the population by 2056. Which means their living patterns and desires will affect all levels of the development industry. For example, the vast majority of adults aged 55 or older (89 per cent) want to age in in their own home, but over 50 per cent of falls that older adults suffer occur in their own home. Stairs are the leading cause of serious falls among community-living elderly, accounting for about one-third of all fatal falls, and a common reason that seniors move from their home is their mobility problems. But studies have shown that seniors are less likely to move to an institution or care home when their homes are equipped with some accessibility features.

This is where efforts such as VisitAbility come in. First introduced in North America in 1986 by Eleanor Smith and a group of advocates for people with physical disabilities, the vision of the VisitAbility movement is to create an inclusive community where people with mobility challenges can visit their families, friends, and neighbours without barriers. Although there are a few interpretations of VisitAbility, three essential features are commonly identified for VisitAble housing, and include: a no-step entrance (at the front, back or side of the house); wider doorways and clear passage on the main floor; and a main floor bathroom or powder room that can be accessed by visitors who use mobility devices.

Beyond the minimum

Progress is being made in advancing VisitAble housing in regions such as the United States, Australia, the U.K. and other European countries, but Canada is lagging behind those countries in terms of legislation, incentives and public education. To combat this, one component of the Project was the initiation of the Awards of Excellence in VisitAble Housing. The winners (full disclosure: I was one of the judges) reflected several building types that not only integrated the three main provisions for being considered “visitable,” but went further in their solutions to address the challenges disabled people face in the built environment.

The first prize winner in the Multi-Family Unit Development category, Place La Charrette in Winnipeg raised the bar on accessibility issues, and not just through design. Developed and managed by Ten Ten Sinclair, a non-profit organization that develops affordable housing for persons with physical and reasonably equivalent disabilities, the project required extensive collaboration between public and non-profit sectors, with the total project cost of nearly $11 million cost-shared between the Province of Manitoba and the Government of Canada. These partnerships facilitated an Integrated Design Process between Manitoba Housing, the architect, contractor, a universal design expert, and tenants with manual and electric wheelchairs. As a result, Place La Charrette is the only housing project in Winnipeg that has universally designed apartments and attached bungalow units on the same property.

The first prize winner of the Single Family Detached Homes category didn’t have the benefit of government intervention, but still managed to raise the bar on every level of design. Rightfully called Platinum Living, this home was built for a woman who has life-threatening multiple chemical sensitivities compromising her immune-system, which meant in addition to accessibility, air-quality was paramount. This project called for innovative solutions within a tight budget, and along the way notched up Energuide 94, R2000 certification and BuiltGreen Platinum ratings.

Receiving special recognition in the Awards was a heritage project that impressed the jury in the efforts it took to overcome visitability issues in a building that was built in a time when no such considerations were given. Government House, home to the Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor, is a highly visited residence, but until recently was not universally accessible. Wheelchair access was limited to the ground floor. Clearly an elevator to provide accessibility to all floors was needed, but the existing plan and heritage structure did not lend itself easily to such a solution. As a heritage building, attention needed to be given to character-defining features so that they were not inadvertently removed or irreversibly altered. Space was tight in the attic and the only feasible location would displace an existing servery, washrooms, and a Maid’s Room. A high water table was problematic, as well. Yet despite these setbacks, the end result of a three-year renovation included installation of an elevator, accessible washrooms and paths of travel. While not every box on the accessibility checklist was crossed off, the jury felt that this project makes a strong public statement about the need to address all structures, including heritage ones, from the perspective of visitability and inclusivity.

Go to for the full list of the Awards of Excellence winners, and see how the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies is working to spread the gospel of VisitAble housing standards and legislation across Canada.

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