Barriers to Creating Accessible Housing, Part I: Ontario Building Code Accessibility Standards
As you may be aware, I have been doing advocacy work in accessibility for many years, serving on a variety of committees. In the last three years, I have been involved in the R-PATH Committee, which advocates for accessibility in Toronto Community Housing (TCH). I have long been very frustrated with the lack of usable accessibility standards and usable design in the built environment. It’s been wonderful to be part of our committee that, in collaboration with TCH staff, have developed standards that exceed the Ontario Building Code, and which will accommodate present and future accessibility equipment, making for actually usable design.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly isolated endeavor. The rest of the industry is still riddled with barriers.
A bit of statistics
At present, 1 in 7 people in Canada (14-15 percent) have a disability. Mobility disabilities are most common at 11 percent or about two thirds. With the baby boomer generation aging, it’s expected that the number of people with disabilities will increase.
In 2036, 1 in 5 (or 20 percent) will have a disability. Assuming that the ratio of disabilities remains unchanged, approximately 15 percent of the population will have a mobility disability in 20 years.
Ontario Building Code Accessibility Standards
This is not the first time I’ve talked about the OBC accessibility standards, and most of the time I haven’t been all that complementary. Standards appear to be made based on the dimensions of a manual wheelchair, and with the assumption that the person in the chair can bend their knees 90°, and that they have full upper body mobility. I might even go so far as to posit that they reflect the needs of someone who is a paraplegic, while not recognizing that a disability often affects more than the legs.
There has been some progress, especially in the latest version of the standards, published in 2015.
Accessible versus visitable
When I first saw that the 2015 OBC standards would require 15 percent of all units to be accessible, I nearly swooned with excitement and gratitude. Finally real progress that would meet the need of people with disabilities, and enable us to find housing, both within the social housing envelope, as well as condos and other apartment buildings!
Not so fast.
That new standard doesn’t mean that 15 percent of all units will be fully accessible. It means they will be visitable. How many will be fully accessible? I attended a forum on accessible and affordable housing last week, and a City of Toronto social housing staff shared that in city-developed social housing, 5 percent of units will be fully accessible.
Just for fun, take another look at the stats at the top of this post. Have some fun as your mind boggles.
Basic accessibility features
Contributing to this mess is the notion of “basic accessibility features.” Because those 15 percent of units that have to be visitable must include “a barrier-free path of travel and doorway into a bedroom, full bathroom, kitchen and living room.”
Now, as a person with a disability, I interpret basic accessibility features in say, the washroom, to be things like a raised toilet, a grab bar or two, a roll in shower, and knee clearance under the sink. Sounds reasonable, right?
Not per the OBC. Basic accessibility features is interpreted to be the barrier free path of travel in public areas of the building, as well as in 15 percent of units, and that in those 15 percent of units there be a raised toilet and reinforcement in the bathroom walls so you can mount grab bars. No actual grab bars, though.
That’s not tremendously helpful.
Because here is the rub: that barrier free path of access through the apartment will get a wheelchair user to the different rooms, but will they be able to use these rooms? Likely not, because as far as I’m aware, the basic accessibility features don’t mean that the rooms are larger than they usually are. Which means you can raise a toilet as much as you want, but without grab bars and space for the wheelchair to get into the room and for the disabled person to transfer to that raised toilet, there is not much you can do when you need to pee.
So these new standards enable people with disabilities who use mobility aids to get to the kitchen, I washroom, and a bedroom, admire how beautiful they are, but not actually be able to use them.
How is this visitable? Well, I guess in the strict sense of the word, it makes the unit visitable, in the sense that I can visit a friend — assuming that my friend happens to live in one of the 15 percent of units that’s visitable — and have some faith in the ability to enter the unit. But I better have a high-capacity bladder, and not expect to stay overlong. Because I won’t actually be able to use any other room than the living room.
And another thing … That 15 percent doesn’t make sense to me. It may be based on the 15 percent of people who are projected to have mobility disabilities in 20 years, but that argument gets sidetracked once we talk about the units being “visitable.” Because although these units may be a way of future-proofing the building for the 15 percent of people who will live with mobility disabilities in 20 years, making them visitable acknowledges the fact that people have friends and family who have disabilities. Except that’s not limited to only 15 percent of the population.
Am I the only one who’s confused here?
The OBC has completely let down people with disabilities, as well as developers in this respect. It appears that when these standards were developed, the OBC did not consult with people with disabilities, who might have told him that we, too, are human and occasional need to void our bladders. Or maybe visiting someone with whom we’d like to use the bedroom. Or might wish to make ourselves a cup of tea.
The result is standards that on the surface are designed to make it possible for people with disabilities to be more integrated in society (read: visit friends, family, and lovers), but in actuality makes little to no difference, merely perpetuating barriers.
The standards, however, are just part of the problem. In Part II of this post, I’ll take a look at the development industry.