By CAROL DAMIOLI
Affordable housing gets much enthusiastic attention these days. Any politician can score big points by calling for the construction of 10,000, or 50,000, or a million affordable housing units. Yet there’s another big A-word in the realm of housing that’s heard much less. That other A-word is “accessibility.”
That word is relevant to a group that any of us could join at any time — the disabled. In fact, 22 per cent of Canadians are already members of this group. Incredibly, no Ontario law requires housing to be accessible. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act does not even mention housing.
Accessible housing doesn’t mean merely that a wheelchair can roll up to the door and go through. It means that each housing unit in a multi-unit building is specially designed to accommodate disabilities. This is done through “universal design.”
Universal design is as cool as it sounds. A universal design unit is suitable for anyone of any age or (dis)ability. If an able-bodied person eventually needs the accessibility features, they are already in place. For example, the unit’s main door has two peepholes — one low enough for a wheelchair user, and the other at the conventional height.
Hallways and passageways are at least 42 inches (107 centimetres) wide. The kitchen cabinetry allows a person to work in a seated position. Countertops have non-glare surfaces. The built-in oven is placed conveniently low, and has a door that swings out sideways rather than folding down, so it doesn’t impede a wheelchair.
In the bathroom, there’s a roll-in shower, and reinforced walls that can accommodate grab bars. Laundry equipment is front-loading. Even with all these features, the unit in no way resembles an institutional space.
All of these universal design features, and more, allow aging in place, and keep people out of nursing homes, thus saving healthcare dollars.
The current situation is discriminatory — disabled people pay taxes, yet they can’t use all of the residential buildings that their tax money makes possible.
According to a Statistics Canada survey, only half of Canadians who need accessible housing actually have it.
Universal design does not significantly increase building costs if it is incorporated at the design stage. And accessible units do not take up more space than conventional ones.
The provincial and national building codes must be updated to require that all units in new construction of multi-unit residential buildings be built using universal design. Tell your MPP to make it a priority to update the provincial building code with accessibility in mind.
In the meantime, cities could take the lead by making universal design mandatory in all housing built through city programs, or with any city tax dollars, or on land made available by the city.
Alternatively, a city could offer an incentive to developers: a waiver of development fees on buildings that follow universal design. Tell your city councillor!
The need for accessible housing will only increase as our society ages.
Accessible housing enhances human dignity, personal freedom, social inclusion, employment possibilities, and health. So, while we build all that affordable housing, let’s also make all of it accessible. Then, new housing in Canada could truly be graded A-plus.
Carol Damioli is a retired journalist and a member of the steering committee of the Accessible Housing Network (www.accessiblehousingnetwork.org).