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Accessible Public Spaces in Ontario

Under the Design of Public Spaces Standard of the AODA, organizations must make new and redeveloped public spaces accessible. Accessible public spaces include:

Similarly, under the Ontario Building Code, all new and redeveloped buildings open to the public, businesses, and apartment buildings must follow accessibility standards. These standards include:

  • Ramps, lifts or elevators whenever there are stairs
  • Automatic doors and wide doorways at entrances to buildings and common areas
  • Accessible public washrooms
  • Barrier-free paths of travel into and through buildings
  • Accessible seating and auditoriums
  • Visual fire alarms in auditoriums and hallways

More Accessible Public Spaces Needed

Currently, the Code and Standard do not have guidelines for several aspects of structures. However, many cities, such as Toronto, Brantford, and London, have addressed this gap by developing municipal guidelines for accessible public spaces and features including:

  • Offices
  • Places of worship
  • Courthouses
  • Swimming pools
  • Balconies, porches, and terraces
  • Windows

Toronto and Brantford outline more accessibility guidelines for places like:

  • Libraries
  • Cafeterias
  • Residential kitchens

Toronto’s guidelines include additional provisions for accessible:

  • Restaurants
  • Snow removal
  • Mail boxes
  • Traffic islands

The need for a stronger provincial code and standard

A stronger provincial code and standard would mean that cities need not duplicate each other’s efforts to create accessible public spaces.

In addition, the Code and Standard only mandate accessibility in buildings and spaces that are new or redeveloped. These legal limitations mean that older buildings and spaces are closed or unwelcoming to people with certain disabilities, including people who:

  • Use mobility aids
  • Have heart or lung conditions
  • Have limited upper-body movement

Organizations responsible for buildings and public spaces may feel that they do not need to worry about making older spaces accessible because the standard does not require them to do so. They may also fear that installing accessible features will be costly, time-consuming, or inconvenient. However, grants for structural accessibility may offset costs. In addition, some changes are less costly and easier to put in place. While renovating for accessibility may take time and construction is inconvenient, inaccessibility is just as time-consuming and inconvenient for people with disabilities when they must leave an inaccessible location and do business or activities elsewhere. Finally, there are important reasons for people to choose accessible public spaces.

Fifteen percent (15%) of people in Ontario have disabilities. This number will rise as people age. More and more people will soon want to live and do business in accessible locations. If building owners, and people in charge of public spaces, make those spaces as accessible as they can, their actions may later help someone they know. Moreover, accessibility also affects non-disabled family, friends, and colleagues. Groups travelling on family trips, friendly outings, or company social events will include people with disabilities. These potential clients will choose to go to accessible places.

Small Steps Toward Accessibility

If building owners cannot make large changes, they can still make small ones. Even if a building cannot immediately follow every best practice, they can still choose to implement some. For instance, ramps and elevators are both important items that help people with mobility disabilities access buildings. If a building owner cannot install an elevator but can install a ramp, this effort will make part of the building accessible.

Furthermore, some businesses can offer services that help people access their offerings even when there are physical barriers. For example, a restaurant with a delivery charge and without a ramp may wave the delivery charge for a person who cannot enter the building to eat or pick up food, so that this customer would not need to pay more for accessing the service in the only way possible. Organizations wishing to make their spaces more accessible should consult people with disabilities to find out what changes would be most helpful.

Access Helps Everyone

Organizations in charge of buildings and public spaces who make as many accessibility improvements as they can will show that they welcome tenants, customers, and workers who have disabilities. Moreover, accessible buildings and public spaces are also helpful for other groups of people. Ramps, elevators, and accessible fixed-queuing guides are useful for families with babies in strollers. Wide sidewalks and hallways benefit families with small children who can hold hands while they travel. Automatic doors are useful for people with their hands full of groceries or supplies.

Not all accessibility is mandatory under the AODA. Some of it can be costly or need careful planning. However, some accessible features are easier to put in place than others. People who own buildings or are responsible for public spaces can make one change at a time. Many of these changes will make the world more welcoming to people of all abilities and at every stage of their lives.