Volume 26, Issue Number 4, Summer 2022
Repairs, Maintenance and Renovations


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Ramp Up Your Retrofits

Let's Disable Ableism in our Buildings!

By Anne Beninger | Other articles by Anne Beninger

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), approximately 1 in 5 Canadians (22%) live with some form of disability. Furthermore, nearly 14% of Canadians are 65 or older – a figure that is expected to double in the next 25 years. As we age, we experience losses in mobility, strength, stamina, hearing and vision. Ensuring an accessible built environment ensures equitable access to housing for all and affords ourselves and our elders the dignity to "age in place" – the ability to live in the same home or community safely, independently, and comfortably, as a person ages.

Nearly every article that discusses accessibility starts with similar statistics. We all generally get it. We should design spaces that can be navigated comfortably and independently by all people, regardless of ability. Despite knowing the statistics, weak legislation and lack of awareness persists. We continue to maintain barriers in our buildings; even worse, we still create them. A barrier may be obvious – such as stairs – or more subtle – such excessive glare from the brilliantly buffed floor that is painful or disorienting to people with certain sensory impairments.

Building Codes, Standards, and Guidelines
In Ontario, there are two pieces of legislation that provide minimum requirements for accessibility in and around our buildings:

  • The Ontario Building Code
    (OBC)'s accessibility requirements are generally found in Section 3.8 Barrier Free Design. Other sections are referenced for stair and guard dimensions, minimum lighting, visual fire alarms, etc. Significant changes have been made to the OBC over the past decade related to accessibility, with a comprehensive update in 2015. In general, the minimum dimensions for elements such as circulation areas, door widths, and accessible washrooms have increased, and additional safety provisions have been added.
  • The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) became law in 2005 and applies to all non-profit and private sector businesses in Ontario that have one or more employees – this includes condominiums. The AODA sets out a process for developing and enforcing accessibility standards. The standards for the built environment are discussed in Part IV.1 Design of Public Spaces (DOPS), which became law circa 2013.

Generally, the AODA's DOPS covers exterior publicly accessible areas, such as parking areas and pedestrian paths. In contrast, the OBC barrier-free requirements cover mostly indoor spaces. However, there is some overlap. The DOPS includes interior service-related elements such as service counters and waiting areas, and the OBC covers exterior elements related to entrances, exits, and access to these elements from the street or parking area.

Both the OBC and AODA are considered "go forward" legislation, meaning the requirements are not retroactive. Herein lies the weakness. Your building need only meet the requirements of the time that it was designed and the building permit was issued. Commonly, it's only when undertaking an extensive renovation (e.g., when moving walls and changing the use of a space), that inaccessible elements within the project area must be upgraded to meet current code under part 11 of the OBC. In condominiums many significant renovation and renewal projects – such as corridor refinishing, exterior paving replacement – are considered basic renovations or maintenance projects and do not require upgrading to current code. These projects are missed opportunities to create more accessible and inclusive spaces.

Accessibility advocates generally recognize the AODA and OBC as a minimum standard for accessibility, and property managers should as well. Compliance with these does not mean compliance with the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC). The Human Right's Code requires that people are not discriminated against due to their disability and implies a level of accessibility be provided, unless an organization can prove it is an undue hardship to provide the level of accessibility requested. The HRC takes primacy over all legislation and supersedes the OBC and AODA. Condominiums have a duty to accommodate residents, visitors and staff. As such, renovations to remove barriers may be required at any time if a request to accommodate is received by an affected party.

For those who are ready to move beyond the bare minimum and want to know how to do their part to make to make their buildings more inclusive, there are many free/low-cost guides available:

  • The CNIB Foundation provides information on creating accessible environments for people who are blind in their website, Clearing Our Path (www. clearingourpath.ca).
  • CSA B651 - Accessible Design for the Built Environment (cost $125), is a nationally recognized, voluntary standard which includes better-practice information on how to make buildings and the exterior built environment accessible and safely usable by persons with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities.
  • Most municipalities have developed their own facility accessibility design guidelines, documents similar to CSA B651, which can be downloaded from the web (search your City Name and Accessibility Design Guidelines/Standards). Although these guidelines are not mandatory for privately owned buildings, they provide a wealth of practical information.

These guides provide more detailed requirements for specific spaces and building elements than prescribed in the OBC and AODA. They also include photographs, easy-to read illustrations, and commentary to better understand the design criteria.

Renovations
Most of us did not have any involvement in the design of the buildings where we live or manage. Upgrading an existing building to remove all barriers to accessibility is often a costly proposition. By identifying barriers and understanding where they exist in your building, you can prioritize and make a multi-year plan to eliminate them. Some more urgent items can and should be done as soon as possible (think Human Rights). Others can be incorporated into design choices when implementing renovation projects at little to no additional cost. When replacing an element, consider how you can make it better for everyone.

Here are just a few examples of things to consider when undertaking renovation and renewal projects:

  • When refurbishing corridors, common areas and amenity spaces (e.g., party rooms, gyms, laundry, etc.), choose a colour scheme that provides contrast between the floor surface, walls and doors which aids in wayfinding for individuals with low vision. Install power door operators at amenities and widen door openings. Replace audio only fire alarm signals (i.e., bells or speakers) with combination audible/ visual signals, which incorporate flashing lights to signal an emergency to deaf individuals. Install a Universal Washroom if no accessible washroom is present.
  • When refurbishing the lobby, re-design the reception desk to include a portion with a counter-top height that is usable by all individuals, including those using mobility devices, children, and persons of short stature.
  • Updating changerooms? Convert inaccessible showers stalls to a roll-in shower.
  • Replacing the party room kitchen? Ensure the layout allows sufficient space for turning a wheelchair and consider adding a countertop with lowered height and knee clearance. Avoid elevated "breakfast bar" configurations that exclude people in a seated position.
  • When repainting stairwells, as a minimum, add a strip of paint in a contrasting colour at the nosing and paint the handrails a contrasting colour to the walls. Install handrails on both sides, if one is missing. Consider replacing the handrails with a more ergonomic shape. Consider adding tactile walking surface indicators (TWSIs) at landings which signal with texture and colour the end of a landing. These simple changes help people with vision loss or balance issues more safely navigate stairs.
  • When replacing the building intercom entry system, choose a model with a larger screen with larger text and with both audible and visual prompts. Ensure it is mounted a height where the controls are reachable from a seated position.
  • Any type of operable control should be operable with a closed fist or in a manner that does not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist. Replace all older style doorknobs with lever-style. Replace keyed locks or switches with electronic fob readers. Replace the handles on refuse chute intake doors that have thumb-release latches with lever handles.
  • When replacing exterior walkways, widen pathways to allow people who use mobility devices to easily pass by in opposite directions. Reduce slopes wherever possible and install ramps (complete with guards and/or handrails) when slopes exceed minimum AODA requirements. Install curb ramps (a small ramp built into the curb of a sidewalk) at logical transitions between parking/roadways and sidewalks (e.g., the most direct path of travel, at passenger drop off areas, etc.). Install TWSIs wherever a pedestrian path intersects with a vehicle path to signal a hazard. If undertaking this work without a design consultant, make sure your contractor is aware of AODA and OBC requirements for ramps, curb ramps, pathways, and TWSIs (which include minimum dimensions, maximum slopes, and material contrast).
  • When replacing asphalt paved parking areas, update accessible spaces to current standards, which includes a side access aisle and improved signage. Consider adding additional accessible visitors' spaces, if space permits. Modifying parking stalls in condominiums can be tricky. It may not be possible to increase the size or quantity of spaces in parking garages, where the structure was designed to meet the minimums at the time of construction. Surface lots provide a better opportunity; however, exclusive use ownership of specific stalls may restrict options. A legal opinion should be obtained.
  • A garage roof deck waterproofing replacement project, which requires removal and replacement of site finishes to access the waterproofing, is a perfect opportunity to review the design of exterior areas and make changes to increase accessibility (see above walkways and parking).

Overall Design Elements
Some design elements are applicable to all aspects of a building, both interior and exterior, such as lighting, material choice, signage.

Lighting is an important safety feature, as it increases visibility and detectability of elements and features, such as steps or protruding elements. Lighting aids in wayfinding and usability of controls (door hardware, intercoms, power switches, etc.). Lighting should be designed to reduce glare on surfaces and be evenly distributed to minimize pools of light or shadows which can be disorienting to some individuals.

Material choice, including colour, contrast, and texture, can be both helpful and hurtful. Use of contrasting colours between elements increases visibility; however, however, heavily patterned flooring or surfaces with excessive glare can be disorienting. Changes in ground covering texture can signal the edges of a path, increasing safety; however, some ground coverings can be more difficult to navigate for people using mobility devices (e.g., canes, walkers, and wheelchairs). Interior designers and landscape architects understand materiality and colour theory and can provide valuable guidance for renovation projects.

Wayfinding signage is an often-overlooked element in accessibility. As a minimum, signage incorporating the International Symbol of Access (usually blue square overlaid in white with a stylized image of a person in a wheelchair) should be used to identify a barrier-free washroom, accessible parking areas, an accessible entrance and the barrier-free path from the accessible parking area to an accessible entrance. Well-placed signage reduces the distance travelled and therefore effort it takes to locate these elements. General building signage – such as room labels and directional signage – should be consistently shaped, coloured and positioned to make it easy to locate. Long term residents probably know where the gym, party room, and management office are located. However, visitors and new residents rely on signage and other visual cues. Well-designed signage, incorporating pictograms, tactile elements, simple font, can be comprehended by individuals with varying levels of vision as well as those who do not speak the prevailing language.

Learn and Evolve
This article only scratches the surface of disabling barriers. Hiring an accessibility consultant to conduct an accessibility audit, as you might hire a building envelope consultant to complete a roof or cladding evaluation, can help with long term planning. Building codes, standards and guidelines evolve as our understanding does. We should continue to take lessons from the lived experience of all building users to continue to make improvements that promote equity and inclusiveness in our buildings. Encourage residents to make suggestions on improvements that would make their day-to-day tasks easier. A building that includes everyone, benefits everyone.

 
 

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Summer 2022
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