|Barriers Abound in Existing Built Environment
Ontario’s Accessibility Standards Carve Out Navigable Pockets
By Barbara Carss
Voluntary action will continue to be the predominant dismantler of barriers in Ontario’s built environment and landscapes as promised standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA) slowly come into force. The most recently released component of the provincial Integrated Accessibility Standards applies to new construction and/or redevelopment of a fairly limited range of primarily exterior public spaces, while the greater remainder of regulations pertaining to interior space is slated for a future edition of the Ontario Building Code.
Nevertheless, owners/managers of existing buildings do have approaching deadlines to consider. All private sector organizations with at least 50 employees will have to prepare accessibility plans and file reports by December 31, 2014. Beyond that, the Act’s stated goal is that Ontario will be accessible by 2025.
“One of the core elements of the AODA is that it reflects the tenets of the Human Rights Code and property managers and landlords are obliged, right now, to accommodate individual requests under the Human Rights Code,” advises Nicole Cormier, Business Development Manager with the consulting firm, AccessAbility Advantage. “The aim of these new standards is that, over time, they will make Ontario more accessible.”
The proposed accessibility standards for public spaces were posted for public review in the summer of 2012 with comments accepted until October 1. Some of the standards pertain to areas that are typically the public sector’s responsibility, while standards for off-street parking, exterior paths of travel, outdoor eating and play areas, service counters, waiting areas and queuing guides will apply to many privately owned facilities and amenities.
Much will depend on the ownership structure of the property. The draft standards provide an exemption for private sector organizations with fewer than 50 employees – a point of contention for the AODA Alliance, a coalition of proponents of barrier-free access who urge timely implementation of the Act.
"This would exempt an organization even if it owns a large amount of land and has ample resources and revenues to ensure the accessibility of its public spaces,” the Alliance argued in its submission to the Ontario government. “The draft regulation needs to be revised to extend these requirements to small private sector organizations that have the capacity to comply with them.”
For larger companies, new construction or redevelopment – which the Ontario government defines as “work on an element, structure or site that takes it beyond its original condition” – will trigger requirements for compliance. However, exceptions will also be granted for properties designated in accordance with the Ontario Heritage Act and/or if physical or site constraints prevent feasible adoption of the measure.
For example, building owners undertaking a structural retrofit of an existing underground parking garage would generally be expected to provide the required percentage of accessible spaces at the dictated dimensions, along with associated access lanes. That would be 4% of the initial 500 spaces in the garage and an additional 2% of all spaces in excess of 500 – equating to 20 accessible spaces in a 500-vehichle garage or 30 accessible spaces in a 1,000-vehicle garage – but that requirement could be reduced if a garage could not physically accommodate that number of accessible spaces and still provide the total number of parking spaces dictated by existing municipal standards.
"It may not be practicable as it may cause the building to then not comply with minimum parking space requirements in municipal by-laws,” says Amy Pothier, an Accessibility Specialist with Quadrangle Architects.
Few of the public space standards are likely to impose major capital costs, particularly when the accessibility features are incorporated in new construction. They are more of a tool to prompt awareness in the design, planning and development phases to prevent barriers. Notably, organizations will be mandated to consult with people with disabilities and the general public about design and the placement of supportive features.
Sensitive choice of materials and vigilant maintenance are key factors for exterior walkways, courtyards and plazas that are also just good management practices for any venue competing for tenants and customers.
“The outdoors can present many challenges for people with disabilities. Exterior routes that are not barrier-free are often a result of an unstable ground surface, ice formation or failing to provide adequate drainage from rain or snow melt,” explains Lorin MacDonald, a former member of the provincial Accessibility Standards Advisory Council who practices law with London, Ontario-based Cohen Highley LLP. “People with mobility difficulties find irregular surfaces like cobblestones a particular challenge. It is hard for those using a wheeled mobility device or walking aids to negotiate uneven surfaces or sand and gravel surfaces. All of these things need to be taken into consideration to make our exterior spaces accessible to everyone and, ultimately, spaces we can all enjoy.”
Developments built within the last 15 years should already be in compliance with the proposed configurations for ramps, stairs and railings since they are the same as the standards that have been stipulated in the Ontario Building Code since 1997. Likewise, many existing municipal parking by-laws now match or even exceed the proposed standards for accessible parking spaces and associated access lanes.
“I think the intention was to ensure it was achievable within limited budgets, both private and public. That was seen as the best way to provide accessibility within the intent of the Act,” suggests Rick Merrill, an urban designer and principal with the consulting firm, The Planning Partnership, and a member of the Ontario government’s advisory committee for the development of the built environment standards.
The AODA Alliance counters that this approach is too tentative and is causing delays that make a mockery of the 2025 deadline for accessibility.
"We are deeply concerned that this draft regulation only addresses new developments or substantial redevelopments. Otherwise, it leaves the many, many existing barriers in the built environment of public spaces in place to continue to impede persons with disabilities,” the organization states in its response to the proposed standards. “Even if this draft regulation was fully and faithfully complied with, Ontario would not reach fully accessible public spaces by 2025, even in terms of new developments and redevelopments.”
Accessibility advocates, designers and organizations responsible for complying also critique the standards’ vagueness in some areas, and have asked for more descriptive language and detailed specifications. For example, comments from the City of Hamilton note that the standards call for slip-resistant and tactile walking surfaces, but do not provide a definition of either.
“There is really not enough in the standards to actually design an accessible public space. It provides very minimal dimensions,” Pothier says.
ASSESSMENT INSTIGATES ACTION
Required accessibility plans and reporting should bring more attention to the issue and provide impetus for owners/managers who have been slower to consider and address accessibility. As proposed, the designated private sector organizations would have to prepare and file a first report by December 31, 2014 and then update it at three-year intervals. Public sector organizations such as municipalities, schools/universities and health care facilities would be required to report by December 31, 2013 and update their plans biennially.
"That does cause an organization to think about what barriers it has, how to remove them and how it might prevent them from happening,” Cormier notes.
The Ontario government has a web-based tool to guide organizations through the reporting process, but there is also a growing contingent of consultants providing accessibility audit and advisory services. An accessibility audit could also be an insightful exercise for many owners/managers regardless of whether they have a regulatory obligation to produce plans and reports.
“As a property manager, your expertise lies in managing the building and maybe not so much in how the design works and how accessible it is for people with a disability. You may not see things the way a person with a disability will,” Pothier observes.
For more information about the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, see the web site at www.AccessON.ca