Home sweet home

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Yes, fancy stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops are nice to have, but what should be more prominent in new housing are accessible design features say experts.

Wide doorways and hallways; non-slip flooring; reachable and easy-to-use controls, handles, faucets and switches; easy-access storage; raised front-loading appliances; low- or no-threshold shower stalls; and at least one step-free entrance. Together, such features allow people of every age and ability to move in, out and around their home with relative ease.

The demand for barrier-free homes is increasing thanks in part to the need for residential spaces that are “universally designed,” with living spaces that can be accessed to the greatest extent possible. This translates to residents, regardless of their age, size or ability, being able to engage with their environments, simply and intuitively. For people with physical and developmental disabilities, what’s integral is having a home that’s not only attractive and stylish but also completely useable, especially
as their abilities and needs change over time.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15 per cent of the world’s population—about one billion people—live with some physical, cognitive or emotional form of disability. In Canada alone, the number of people with a physical disability that affects their mobility, vision or hearing is expected to increase to nearly four million by 2030, according to Statistics Canada.

“Disability is not just a health problem; it is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives,” says the WHO. When people with disabilities are excluded from social policies that affect the design of the environments that they live in and the products that they use, their access to the world is dramatically cut short. And, according to the WHO, this adds to the negative perception that they’re incapable and dependent on others for their very existence.

Legislating for change

Described as “the most swiftly ratified international treaty in history,” the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—to which Canada is a signatory—was meant to “remove barriers, create accessible and enabling environments and conditions and secure equal opportunities for participation by all persons with disabilities.” In June 2018, disability rights advocates in our country also welcomed long-awaited national accessibility legislation. The Accessible Canada Act—also known as Bill C-81—is currently making its way through the senate and aims to “identify, remove and prevent” barriers for millions of Canadians with a physical, sensory, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or other disability. The Act represents a significant overhaul of accessibility laws. But critics say that it is limited in scope to government agencies and programs, allows for all sorts of exemptions and establishes no timeline.

In the meantime, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have enacted accessibility legislation of their own. Those provinces followed Ontario, which made Canadian history when it passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005. The AODA mandates the province to develop accessibility standards in areas such as built environments and to ensure that the public and private sectors meet those standards. The ultimate goal of the law, of course, is to make certain that the province is fully accessible to nearly two million Ontarians with disabilities by 2025. Nevertheless, despite the province’s 2015 accessibility action plan—called “Path to 2025”—consumer advocacy groups say that the implementation of AODA has fallen behind in recent years.

Mind the gap

So although legislation at the provincial and national levels marks considerable progress in making Canada a more inclusive society, there’s still a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality, say disability advocates. That’s because Canadians, by and large, still have a limited understanding of the principles of universal design and access. And while building codes provide basic safety standards, most don’t take into account the needs that arise from differences in human characteristics and abilities.

Although figures aren’t widely available in Canada, findings from the UK confirm that universal design pays off. The Habinteg Housing Association is a UK-based organization that has long made the case for barrier-free housing, and has developed and implemented standards for accessible homes that more broadly meet the needs of people with disabilities. Habinteg’s own research shows that such investment in accessible homes by public funders and private developers, if not individual households, not only enables people to age “in place” instead of in nursing or retirement homes, but also improves the economic participation of people. In fact, the upfront costs of building barrier-free homes are now outweighed by the social costs of unmet housing needs, from extended hospitalization to long-term unemployment.

People with a diverse range of characteristics and abilities need to be consulted before any new home design and construction, according to Habinteg. By understanding how users interact with their environments, organizations will be better able to anticipate and respond to their individual needs. Still, it’s said that when organizations operate in silos, subsequent planning suffers. So a range of stakeholders, such as thought leaders, urban planners, residential architects, facility managers and disability consultants, should be involved equally in the design and construction of inclusive spaces, too.

Here in Canada, a number of home builders have their eyes on universal design. There’s Vancouver-based Kerr Construction, a custom home-building and renovation company, which in recent years has acknowledged that one of the most traumatic times in a person’s life is having to move out of their home because of age-related mobility issues. Kerr Construction says that it puts itself in the frame of mind of a person who needs a walking frame or wheelchair, for example, and tries to provide them with fuller access and independence in their own home.

Offering community residents the “opportunity to live, work, play and thrive” is key to The Daniels Corporation’s philosophy. One of the country’s prominent condo developers, the Toronto company introduced its Accessibility Designed Program (ADP) back in the fall of 2017. By teaming up with leading accessibility consultants and architects, as well as a non-profit group, it has been able to practically incorporate AODA guidelines into its building plans. The company now builds ADP condo suites that exceed Ontario Building Code accessibility requirements, with large roll-in showers, low-threshold or roll-out balconies and a number of other kitchen and common-area design elements. “We’re committed to creating vibrant and inclusive communities that offer homes to the broad spectrum of the market, including people who find mobility difficult in traditional layouts,” the company says. “Rather than retrofitting existing layouts, we have raised the bar and set a new industry standard by designing for inclusion at the outset.”

More to do

But following best practices and making use of universal design elements are only a part of the solution, according to disability advocates. They’re still calling for a more integrated approach that promises both affordability and onsite supports. What’s more, they want to see a process that ensures that these same individuals receive accommodations if their home’s design doesn’t enable their access as originally intended.

Accessibility is all about sound planning and execution, considering the gamut of human diversity, say accessibility leaders. And when inclusive values are incorporated into strategy and policy in this way, accessibility becomes even more intentional, quickly carrying over into action. It becomes more of a guiding principle and just a part of day-to-day life. However, the question remains whether governments, businesses and organizations will get behind people with disabilities—who are already taking active roles in their own communities—and commit to accessibility plans that will make universally designed homes more widespread in the years to come. After all, 2025 is right around the corner.

Kevin Spurgaitis has been employed in the Canadian and overseas media for nearly two decades and has written in-depth feature articles on public health, justice and ethics.

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