By Mark Michasiw, Director, Parkin Architects Limited
The implementation of accessibility in the provision and execution of facility planning is one of the great challenges of the day. Our institutional clients are, by mandate, on the leading edge of the correct provision of service delivery to meet without limitation the needs of a client group growing in diversity, complexity, specialty of need and, of course, age. These issues, in the context of human rights, mean our service and our design solutions have had to be re-engineered to address this new imperative.
The history of the rights of the disabled forms the backdrop for the design and service delivery we know today. The inevitable application of the Canadian Human Rights Act (1977) and Charter of Rights and Freedoms within the Constitution Act (1982) has enshrined the concept of equality and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. The application of this important concept has unfolded in the past four decades and continues to evolve. Service to the public, provided by public agency ̶ and, of course, those providing service to individuals and public agencies ̶ must conform to rights and obligations. Prescriptively, the physical impact of this is codified in building code, municipal bylaw and regulation, but it is also embodied in less tangible, but equally compelling issues such as service delivery agreements, project specific output specifications and operational practice. In Ontario, these policy-oriented matters are expressed in the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). However there are numerous other elements of law that may influence the application of accessibility. Of particular note, the federal Employment Equity Act (1995) prevents discrimination on the basis of disability. Most human rights tribunals in the land have ruled that discrimination on the basis of disability is unlawful and subject to severe penalty.
This regulatory setting outlines the “hard-stop” issues of compliance. The detail of ODA and AODA objectives also sets out timelines for physical changes and for changes in the delivery of services.
The human side of this equation is the imperative that as a society we must provide reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities. After all those with disabilties are us, as individuals, families, employees, professionals, client and customers.
Proactively, we have adjusted employment policies to diminish barriers to our work and office to promote the employment of individuals with disabilities. We have worked with our landlords to improve parking, building entrances, washrooms and elevators to assist in staff and visitor access. We have developed policies and procedures to recognize special needs, in advance of meetings and events we facilitate, and put in place special services such as assistive listening or remote attendance to address the requirements. As required by AODA we have created a policy on the reduction of barriers and maintain an in-house committee to oversee improvements and mitigate new challenges.
Obviously, the substance of our work is design. Along with the practicalities of life safety, cost efficiency, functionality and aesthetics, the impact of accessibility has become a vital component of design. We are also keenly aware of the impact of these needs on planning and the apparent challenges they bring, whether it is their clientele or their staff. The recognition by our clients that highly skilled professionals may have significant disabilities is something that often requires education. Having experienced this with our clients, we often outline the impact on design through these new realities.
One of the challenges is to recognize, as early as is possible, the impact of these requirements on the functional programming and space planning of a facility. Functional Programming often does not fully recognize the effect that barrier-free access has on room planning, be it swing of larger door, or the space in which to reach a door, an electrical outlet or other resource. The argument is often that these specialties with be made up from the “planning factor” globally applied to the program, but we are keenly aware this is also being impacted by the great width of corridors to accommodate activities, thickness of walls to accommodate sound isolation and servicing needs ̶ and the sheer volume of building infrastructure. As a result, we undertake a diligent review of program areas at the commencement of work to ascertain, prima facia, that sufficient area is allotted to functions prior to any detailed planning.
While we have, on occasion, used external accessibility experts to bolster our work, we find that the best basis for detailed planning is our own in-house knowledge, bolstered by on-going learning to capture new issues, regulatory development and innovative solutions within our firm and beyond.
In all cases, we recognize that barrier-free access continues to be an evolving influence on design. The proportion of individuals with disabilities in society is likely to grow from a current figure of about 14% to 20% by 2036. Additionally, the aids and supports to the disabled continue to develop which may have other unforeseen consequences. Thus design and practice must build-in flexibility, innovation and process improvement in anticipation of inevitable change.