A Look at Barrier-Free Design


“Barrier-free design” — we’ve all heard this phrase used at one time or another. However, when pressed for a definition, how many of us can easily produce a comprehensive explanation of the idea? Actually, the concept of barrier-free design has been around for over 20 years, and its meaning continues to evolve.

One of the reasons that barrier-free design has defied definition is because it is essentially a way of thinking. It is an approach to design which recognizes the range of people who make up our society. It recognizes that the people who use the built environment are not all of the same shape, size and strength.

Barrier-free design strives to make the built environment accessible to and useable by all persons. It promotes integration and independence through design that is safe, functional and dignified for everyone. Because barrier-free design is fundamentally good design, it is aesthetically pleasing –not cold and institutional.

We all stand to benefit from an environment which is planned according to human need. Whether you are a parent with a stroller, an individual with a visual disability, a person who uses a mobility aid, someone with a hearing loss, a delivery person or even a cyclist, you are among the many who will value the convenient and supportive nature of barrier-free design.

Barrier-free design is increasingly being replaced by the term “universal design.” Both share the characteristics described above and can be applied in a variety of settings. Both can help to make your home, your school, your workplace and even your “play” environments meet your individual needs.

Barrier-free design sounds like a pretty appealing concept. So why are people still building inaccessible, unuseable facilities? Some attitudinal barriers still exist which hamper the adoption of barrier-free design in its purest form. Misconceptions about the cost benefits of barrier-free or universal design have caused people to incorporate only minimal levels of accessibility in many new and renovated buildings. What is needed to encourage the practice of universal design is education and motivation.

It is encouraging that a number of motivating factors have emerged over the years which have drawn attention to the need for more accessible environments. Rights-based legislation has been one of the most important factors. Federal and provincial human rights legislation demand reasonable accommodation for all people, regardless of their abilities. Employment equity requirements and legislation, again at both provincial and federal levels, are starting to underscore the common sense of providing safe, functional, barrier-free work environments. After all, how can a company plan to employ a segment of the population if their facilities are completely inaccessible to this very population?

Over the years, building code requirements across the country have begun to address the need for barrier-free design. While they represent the extreme minimum standards for accessibility, at the very least they draw attention to the fact that acceptable design includes safety for all users, including those with disabilities.
Perhaps the greatest motivating factor for the use of barrier-free design has been the growing voice of people with disabilities across Canada. The work of a host of consumer groups over time has resulted in the emergence of some truly committed and progressive employers, designers, builders and landlords who appreciate the importance of universal design to securing their position in today’s markets. Through lobbying and the sharing of their expertise, people with disabilities have done more than any other group to advance the philosophy of barrier-free design.

The organization now known as the Barrier-Free Design Centre (BFDC) was primarily initiated by consumer groups of people with disabilities. Formed nearly 10 years ago, the centre grew out of a need identified in the province of Ontario and was strengthened by the agency support of groups like the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada. Over time, the centre has developed from a government-supported pilot home construction project to its current status as an independent, not-for-profit centre of design consultation, education and information.

Our design consultation program has helped hundreds of individuals and organizations create a more useable environment through plan reviews, site visits, building audits, schematic design development and development of specialized guidelines. Among the program’s early projects was the establishment of Canada’s first guidelines for adaptable residential design.

Recognizing that attitudinal barriers could lead to architectural barriers, the centre launched educational programs to increase awareness. Workshops and seminars were developed to assist design and construction professionals, facility managers and individuals of all abilities to recognize and implement the principles of barrier-free design. The education program has even developed college credit courses in barrier-free design.

A strong information program has always supported all of the Barrier-Free Design Centre’s efforts. The program’s resources include guidelines on barrier-free design and construction as well as product literature from around the world. In addition, the BFDC has produced a number of its own publications. The centre’s resource collection is now administered through the Information Centre at Access Place Canada, where BFDC is located.

The Barrier-Free Design Centre has been fortunate to count many outstanding individuals in its staff. Currently, the centre employs: Brenda Millar, Design Consultant; Paula Bowley, Design Consultant; Maureen Sherlock-Glynn, Education Coordinator; Todd Colter, Environmental Designer; Lynda Stephenson, Education Consultant; and Penny Richardson, Administrative Assistant.

On September 1, 1994, Anne Abdalla stepped down from her position as Executive Director to return to university for graduate studies. Anne was Executive Director for seven years and made major contributions to the centre’s development. Her energy and devotion to the centre will be greatly missed.

Lorin MacDonald has assumed the appointment of Executive Director. Lorin brings to her position over a decade of multi-disciplinary experience. As a strong advocate of accessibility for persons with disabilities, Lorin has a keen appreciation of the role of barrier-free design. She is currently a Vice-President of the Canadian Hearing Society and Chair of National Access Awareness Week (Ontario).

Through the work of BFDC and other groups across Canada, let’s hope that the philosophy of barrier-free design continues to evolve until accessible environments are a reality for everyone!

(For more information about the Barrier-Free Design Centre, call (416) 977-5010 (TTY: 977-5225); or fax (416) 977-5264.)


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