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Designing for Universal Access

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For most of my working life, I have been involved in visual design. Suffice it to say, I am interested in all aspects of it – though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that universal accessibility was never really on my design radar. 

That is until my friend became an accredited Access Consultant through the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification Program.

And wow, there is a lot to assess.

To assess your business or organization, you might first put your building through an accessibility audit. An accessibility audit could include:

  • a building audit
  • system and policy audits
  • an audit of your alternate communication formats (such as Braille, social scripts for Autism and ASD, or sign language or electronic text) 

My friend Allison Kelba's consulting business is one of many across Canada that offer accessibility audits, and who can provide forward thinking ideas and solutions on accessibility design.

The core belief is that everyone wins when public venues are accessible, and that universal access does not only benefit people with permanent disability.

“Accessible built environments accommodate everyone - small children, parents with strollers, older adults and seniors, and people with temporary and permanent disabilities - and are inclusive of people’s needs across their lifespan. Making our public spaces universally accessible ensures that everyone is able to participate and live to their full potential”. 

Though I do not design built spaces, the above description from the Rick Hansen website really helped me to see universality in a new light – not only as a designer, but as a community member and friend. 

It made me wonder: with so many businesses at least talking about inclusion, why are so many spaces still not universally accessible?

As a business person, building owner or manager, perhaps it comes down to a financial barrier. Not so says Kelba, “Many needs are less about spending money and more about thoughtful design and inexpensive solutions”. 

She goes on to say that the hardest part is getting through to architects in the first place because they think their design is perfect, that’s their job after all. But she isn’t beating up on architects, she believes interior designers on a larger and smaller scale should use accessibility consultants too.

And she isn’t alone in her thinking. As a matter of fact, advocates say the laws don’t go far enough to ensure new buildings can be used by everyone.

To illustrate this, Toronto lawyer and disability advocate David Lepofsky released a video of his own accessibility ‘audit’ on a public space – a space that won an award of excellence it was pointed out.  

In understanding design, it was very enlightening to see the space from a different perspective, that of a visually impaired user. And while I have no doubt the architects deserved merits for their design, and most likely did not intend to exclude anyone, can a public space really be considered ‘excellent’ if it is not inclusive?

Design with the dignity, and independence of users with permanent and temporary disabilities in mind should clearly be the standard in today’s society.

This idea was the push behind the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Access4All Project which included grants of up to $30,000 in funding for Barrier Buster infrastructure improvement projects and awareness building events in communities across Canada.

An example of one of these projects, from a successful applicant of the grant money on the Access4All Project’s website, goes right back to Allison’s belief that building or designing for inclusion does not have to be expensive, but does have to be thoughtful.

“Luther College at the University of Regina (LCUR) is a welcoming and supportive community within the larger University of Regina campus. Although their library, classrooms, and cafeteria are fully accessible, their washrooms were only semi-accessible and not meeting the needs of all users. Being as LCUR is in a separate detached building, fully accessible facilities are absolutely necessary so that students do not experience limitations in course selection due to the availability of nearby facilities”.

Simple, right? Inclusion benefits everyone.

“People without disabilities benefit from universal access because now they can do things with their friends”, says Allison in a video representing the Rick Hanson Foundation’s Accessibility Certification Program. 

Adds fellow consultant Anthony Lo, “We are able to include everyone in our community, regardless if we are able bodied or people with disability. We are able to share and work and play and live our life in our full potential”.

Now that is design inspiration.

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For more information on accessibility design check out:

Topics: inclusion accessibility access design