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Pretty Hazards: the Accessible Built Environment

July 17, 2012
Suzanne Cohen Share

I received this picture (see link at bottom of article) on my Facebook page recently. It was one in the morning and this sight overstimulated my brain. The picture from came with the comment “Neat design of stairs with the incorporation of a wheelchair access ramp.” I was tired but not too tired to think, wow, this is an idea of beautiful accessible design that is hazardous to anyone’s health.

My accessible built environment buds and engineers all pitched in comments about this picture. Many hoped it was just a picture and could not possibly exist. A researcher pointed me to a similar version of this stair ramp at the McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago.

If you look at the stairs on that campus, there is only one handrail and it is flush with the wall. Floor materials are high gloss and, without personally viewing the materials, it looks like it would be slippery after cleaning. I woefully read on how almost 13,000 people liked the photo, and after reading a few comments, it was obvious people consider this an innovative use of space. I worry when people fall in love with something this pretty. Even if you can walk, the errors should be obvious. There is so much wrong with this picture that I’ll only focus on a few important features.

Once I learned the stairs exist, I could not understand how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities” would allow this structure to be built, and how it could pass inspection. A major missing element is handrails. While this stairway has handrails for people using the stairs at the edges, it has none for people who use manual mobility devices when they get tired and need handrails to help them rest or move on. Handrails also act as a safety feature that prevents slips and falls.

The ramp guidelines of the ADA, section 4.8.5 (2), state:

If handrails are not continuous, they shall extend at least 12 in (305 mm) beyond the top and bottom of the ramp segment and shall be parallel with the floor or ground surface.

When it comes to handrails on ramps, there should be no if’s. On a slope of this magnitude, there must be continuous handrails on both sides of the ramp, from the bottom to the top of the ramp.

So first we have the law that allowed this architect’s dream to be built. It is considered an innovative method to save space. As a bonus, it is eye candy with its Salvador Daliesque look, and people cheer and call it a win-win. If you look at the placement of handrails in this picture, they are primarily to aid ambulatory people from hurting themselves if they become dizzy with the structure. Ramps can be a complicated topic if you are not a built environment expert, but it does not take an expert to see this ramp has too many errors in design and construction.

If I had to fix this accessible route, handrails would be installed throughout the ramp area making the stairs useless.

As for the floor of the ramp; in the Chicago example, there is pretty stair edging to stop wheels from falling over the stairway, but it is not continuous or even in height. I would have riser edges installed the length of the ramp with the exception of where there is a wall.

Look at the platform areas for turning the mobility device, and there are no edges to stop a person from sliding off each platform. I could continue with the problems but let me move on to who can get hurt.

Designing and installing a beautiful tripping hazard

First, I came up with a list of people with varying disabilities who would avoid this route as if it were the plague. Then I realized that everyone who is not paying attention could trip and fall. This accessible design is a tripping hazard for everyone.

Why should we care?

Where do we go from here when there are real barriers to remove and new ones continue to be built? In the name of providing accessibility, over the years technical requirements have had to be improved because well-intentioned people did not think first about safety and usability. This is why people with disabilities and accessibility consultants need to be part of the consultation process. Knowledge about the needs of people with the widest variety of disabilities is necessary to successfully innovate.

The province of Ontario

We have a massive job ahead of us and the province of Ontario has not released the new accessible built environment standards. In the meanwhile, construction continues, architectural designs need only to meet existing laws, and it will be a long time before we get this right. As a person who laboured on the built environment standard committee, I am anxiously waiting to see what the government will do with our recommendations. We emphasized the new standards should not wait for a building code update but become law as soon as possible. Now it is a moot point; the completed proposed standard paperwork has been sitting waiting for two years, and in the meanwhile, the building code update is complete without our new accessibility standards. The province gave orders that we were not to discuss retrofitting and of course, with that topic on hold too, an accessible built environment by the year 2025 is not realistic.

Is accessibility too expensive?

Projections undeniably state that companies across Ontario will enjoy significant profits as the province becomes accessible. In the interim, if we proceed to make accessibility a primary goal, many more people will find work. Those who are thinking about short-term profitability are going to realize that by ignoring accessibility they will build structures that few will use or visit.

A different angle

Let’s consider a few sobering statistics about our beloved province of Ontario:

Ontario facts

  • As of July 1, 2011, the population of the province of Ontario is over 13.4 million people
  • 39 percent of the population of Canada resides in Ontario
  • The average life expectancy of males in Ontario is 79 years of age
  • The average life expectancy of females is almost 84 years of age
  • 37 percent of the Canadian economy is due to activity in Ontario

The numbers above are from the Ontario Ministry of Finance “Ontario Fact Sheet June 2012.”
25-year projection from 2011–2036

  • Over the next 25 years, the province projects a 33 percent increase in population
  • The population is estimated to grow from 13.4 million people to 17.7 million
  • In the year 2011, seniors made up 14.2 percent of the population of Ontario
  • By the year 2036, the senior population will increase to 23.6 percent
  • The greater Toronto area constitutes 47.3 percent of Ontario’s population
  • By the year 2036, the number is projected to rise to 51.6 percent
  • It will pass the 50 percent mark in the year 2027
  • Other regions will grow more slowly and eventually decline
  • In Ontario, older age groups will have the fastest growth
  • People aged 75 and over are projected to increase by 40 percent
  • The 90+ group will triple in size
  • Ontarians between the ages 15 and 64 make up 69.3 of the population and will decrease by 9 percent

The numbers above are from the Ontario Ministry of Finance “Ontario Population Projections Update.”

How do statistics help us plan for the present and future?

Why the focus on seniors? Everyone ages, and due to the natural aging process, seniors require many of the same or similar amenities as people with disabilities. With nearly one-quarter of Ontario’s population projected to be of senior age by 2036, it becomes obvious that accessibility is good for everyone.

Presently, service providers in Ontario have a consumer base of 13.4 million people. The province has 39 percent of the Canadian population and Ontario generates 37 percent of the Canadian economy. By the year 2036, service providers will provide all aspects of life to 17.7 million people.

Think about how everyone benefits when meeting compliance

When thinking about all the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) standards, it is important to remember the benefits are not just for people with disabilities. Although the legislation’s focus is people with disabilities, everyone from seniors to pregnant women and parents or guardians of young children will benefit from numerous aspects of the law. If you shop using a cart and need a curb cut to access your home or a vehicle, you are benefitting from a standard originally written for people with disabilities.

It is cost-effective to move full steam ahead and build everything right the first time. Fixing inevitably costs more. None of us should have to navigate a supposedly accessible route like in this picture. Accessibility is serious business, it is not just serious for people with disabilities; everyone requires safe and usable spaces.

Look at the picture again. Remember that many people have worked hard to provide the best technical requirements possible, and if the law is not in force, well-written, or enforceable then expect healthcare costs to increase. Accessibility is a universal issue and I maintain that moving forward even in this economy is the most positive financial and ethical path. Let’s open our doors to persons with disabilities so they can come in and help us out of our financial trouble.

As you prepare your accessibility policies in your organization, you will focus on the needs of people with disabilities. Once you realize the benefits for the general population, you’ll understand the need to do accessibility the right way, the first time. Even with badly written laws, organizations should think about the problems and rise above the law. There are sections in the AODA standards that state you will “take into consideration,” or “not practicable.” I am thankful we have a Human Rights Code that does not allow us to reject accessibility requirements.

Just think accessible all the time. Consider accessibility the default, not simply an option. We need to accept that accessibility is a necessity and we can’t use lower costs as an excuse to avoid buying or building accessible products. When we stop purchasing inaccessible products, service providers will stop selling inaccessible products.

We can still have a beautiful world and incorporate usability factors for people with disabilities, seniors, adults, children, pets, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Accidents do happen, but when you build something like in this picture, when someone is seriously injured, it is not an accident, and it should be expected.

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A., CEO
Access (SCS) Consulting Services

Reproduced from