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Designing for Accessibility

The Rick Hansen Foundation

By: the Rick Hansen Foundation

More than 6 million Canadians aged 15 and over identify as having a disability, and this number is growing as our population ages. Are our buildings built in a way to support their needs, now and in the future? Not really. While building codes play an important role, we still have a long way to go to ensure people of all abilities have access to the spaces where we live, work, learn, and play. Here’s why this should matter to you.

The Business Case: No matter the type of project you are designing, making it accessible is good business sense. Building owners and operators want to know they are working with someone who can maximize the number of people who can enter their facility. Designing for accessibility helps you do this, and that advantage helps you stand out from others.

For example, if it’s a residential building, it will appeal to a greater variety of potential tenants or buyers, resulting in fewer vacancies and quicker sales. If it’s an office building there is easier access to a wider pool of qualified employees and applicants. And if it’s a business, more people can access the storefront and spend their money there.

Not only is accessibility a human rights issue, it is an economic imperative. A 2018 report from the Conference Board of Canada shows that the positive impact accessibility can have on the economy should not be ignored:

– people with physical disabilities make up a large and growing consumer group—14.3% of consumer spending, or $164 billion per year.

– Improvements to workplace access would allow 550,000 Canadians with disabilities to work more hours, increasing GDP by $16.8 billion by 2030.

Become a Leader: Prioritizing accessibility in design is a way to establish you and your organization as a leader in both innovation and social responsibility. Universal Design demonstrates a people-first approach, one that is able to meet a variety of needs for years to come.

The thing about Universal Design, says VP Access and Inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation Brad McCannell, is that “it’s invisible.” Those who don’t have a disability may not notice that there’s good colour contrast on the floor for navigation with a vision disability, or that the elevator has wide doors to accommodate a wheelchair. Individuals with disabilities, says McCannell, might not notice it either, which is a good thing: it means they didn’t have to overcome a challenge to get from A to B. Imagine knowing that your design positively impacts the way millions of Canadians navigate the built environment.

Even if an individual doesn’t have a disability, they are more likely to live somewhere or support a business if they feel their values are in the right place. Plus, nearly 50% of Canadian adults say they have or have experienced a permanent or temporary disability, or live with someone who has .  If they haven’t yet, chances are they will, and being prepared for the future gives you a leg up over your competition. This helps explain why over 2/3rd of Canadians believe all new buildings should be universally accessible. 

A 2019 Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll found:

  • 67% of Canadians are concerned about future mobility challenges
  • 70% say new buildings should be universally accessible
  • 30% (9 million adults) consider accessibility when deciding which business to visit

A Roadmap to Accessibility: We all know accessible design is important, but with such a variety of regulations and opinions, knowing where to start can be a challenge in itself.

The Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) program was created for industry to fill the gap between local building codes and the real needs of users. It offers an approach that is used nationally, providing consistent ratings across the country.

The program uses a set of standards for the built environment that takes mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities into consideration. Designated RHFAC Professionals use a rating scale to identify barriers in both designs and buildings on their level of meaningful accessibility.

The rating comes with a scorecard outlining strengths and weaknesses, acting as a roadmap to better accessibility. If a building’s rating achieves a certain level, they may earn either RHF Accessibility Certification or RHF Accessibility Certified Gold.

“Improving the lives of people with disabilities means breaking down barriers and creating an accessible environment with the same opportunities for everyone,” says Chair of the RHFAC Advisory Committee and Executive Vice President of Stantec, Stanis Smith.  “As an architect, I have long been committed to designing accessible spaces that can be enjoyed, appreciated, and utilized by everyone.”

An Accessibility Case Study: Marine Gateway is a mixed-use development in South Vancouver offering transit-oriented retail, office, and residential services and spaces. The development is only three years old, and while it meets building code, property manager Laura Malley wanted to make sure it was able to support a diversity of people for years to come. To determine the strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of accessibility, Malley enlisted the help of an RHFAC Professional, Hans Uli Egger.

Following the rating, Marine Gateway was awarded RHF Accessibility Certified Gold, the highest rating in the program, for its many accessible features such as good vehicular access, escalators and moving walkways, and signage and wayfinding. Equally important to receiving accolades for what was working well, was understanding where improvements could be made.

To learn more about Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™, book a rating, or register for the upcoming RHFAC Accessibility Assessor Fall training, visit