A research unit in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning is learning from those who have personal knowledge of the barriers that exist in the built environment.
The PEACH (Planning for Equity, Accessibility and Community Health) team, based in the School of Planning, is comprised of faculty members, alumni, students and partners who lead and support projects exploring how planning can better achieve more equitable, accessible and healthy communities.
“Overall, I think able-bodied people take for granted the reliability of the built environment,” says PEACH Coordinator Kate Clark (MPlan’18). She says the PEACH team employs the social model of disability, which posits that disability occurs in the relationship between a person and their environment, as opposed to solely in the person.
“I'm surprised by how much accessibility is still looked at as a separate issue from all other issues,” Clark says. “Accessibility does or will affect everyone at some point in their lives.”
Yaba Osifo, a PEACH researcher and Master of Planning student, uses a motorized wheelchair and says consulting people with lived experience is a crucial aspect of inclusive design, and one that’s often overlooked.
“No one knows a problem better than the person who has lived it. And sometimes the solutions are not huge or profound — it could just be a tweak to the doorknob,” she says. “When you do research with people who have lived experience, they can tell you specifically what the issue is and why it's an issue.”
And the why, Osifo says, is key: “If you don't understand the why, you might think, ‘Oh, it's just a mild inconvenience,’ but you don't see how that impacts someone, not just in the moment, but throughout their whole day.”
Osifo says the mental load of considering the accessibility of a given space and planning for alternatives is taxing. “You always have to think about what if there are no elevators? You always have to think about how long it will take you to get from this place to this place,” Osifo explains. “And for me using a motor wheelchair, I'm constantly worried about if my battery dies.”
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Why accessibility matters
Almost a quarter of a million Nova Scotians live with some form of disability. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD), Nova Scotia has the highest rate of disability in the country — about one in three. The national average is one in five. (Data from the 2022 CSD will provide updated information and will be available in 2024.)
“Disability” is a bit of an umbrella term and can include anything from a physical impairment to a cognitive one, and some are more visible than others.
The population is also aging, both in Nova Scotia and nationally. By 2030, one in four Nova Scotians will be over the age of 65. Older adults often experience a gradual decline in mobility, hearing, vision, cognitive or other abilities. This presents challenges for navigating the built environment, such as buildings, streetscapes and outdoor public spaces.
Not just ramps and buttons
University campuses can be difficult places to navigate at the best of times, having multiple buildings each with their own complex layout. And campuses can be especially difficult for folks who use accessibility features, such as automatic push door buttons, elevators instead of just stairs or accessible washrooms.
But wayfinding may also be affected by other, less obvious barriers: quality of lighting or acoustics can affect a visually- or hearing-impaired person’s ability to safely navigate a space. Clark points out that design elements such as patterns in flooring, paint colours on walls or types of signage can also have an impact, especially for neurodiverse (ASD, ADHD, dyslexic) individuals who may be particularly affected by environmental elements. Even considering the scent of indoor plants can be an aspect of accessibility.
Clark explains that if there is something unexpected on someone’s route, like a door that is locked or construction on the sidewalk, or an elevator that's under repair, there is usually an alternative available for able-bodied people. “But even a freshly painted hallway for someone who has a significant sensory impairment can become a huge issue to navigation. And it's not just minor inconvenience or something unexpected, it's truly a barrier to access."
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A fully accessible city by 2030?
Dalhousie held its second-annual Accessibility Week from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3, leading up to the Dec. 3 annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The day was proclaimed in 1992 by a United Nations General Assembly resolution to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.
Dal recently published a progress report on its Accessibility Plan, which shares highlights of accessibility improvements and work currently underway. According to that report (p. 3), there are dozens of initiatives and activities that have been completed, are in progress, or are planned and soon to be introduced.
Through consultation with Dalhousie students who experience diverse types of disability, like Osifo, PEACH plans to investigate more routes on Halifax campuses, find out what makes them accessible or inaccessible. The consultation process to expand this campus wayfinding project entered its pilot phase in November 2023.
At the municipal level, Access by Design 2030 is a framework developed by the Province of Nova Scotia to implement a “fully accessible city” by 2030. Clark says it's hard to measure something as fluid as accessibility with a rigid benchmark.
"It's not that there's a single ‘accessible’ bar that will be reached and then we can just check it off,” she explains. “Accessibility in the built environment is constantly needing to be maintained and upgraded. So, it’s always going to be this in-progress thing.”
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