Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Eliminating disability discrimination in most dwellings

Disclaimer: this blog post will contain my personal opinions on disability discrimination in most housing that are not related to my current employment in the disabilities sector, nor is it related to my involvement in the national VisitAbility Project since December 2013.  My comments are not intended to be offensive but rather factual.

What would you do if you were suddenly injured and your mobility was affected, even if only temporarily?  Would your current home/apartment/condominium be set up to accommodate you during this temporary injury?  What if this injury was permanent, what would you do then?  I ask these questions because most individuals won't ever consider these possibilities even though a growing number of Canadians are facing these challenges right now.  I state with confidence that most individuals would be dealing with a housing crisis if they were suddenly faced with some sort of mobility challenge, even if only temporary, because most dwellings are poorly designed and contain architectural barriers.  This poor design is preventable though, with three basic accessibility features known as VisitAbility (one entrance with sloped landscaping instead of stairs, wider doors and hallways, and at least a powder room that can be accessed by someone who requires a mobility device), which has been shown in domestic and international research documents to benefit most individuals.

Many developers and home builders have never given consideration to VisitAbility, Universal Design or any other best practice that would eliminate disability discrimination in dwellings.  It's a fact that most dwellings do not welcome an individual with a mobility challenge, and because most dwellings are poorly designed, individuals with mobility challenges are often forced to either move to whatever limited number of barrier-free accommodations are available (even if in another community), or are forced to spend a significant amount of money to modify their homes to make them safer and more practical. And because the National Building Code and Ontario Building Code exempt barrier-free design standards in homes in section, what are consumers supposed to do if their housing needs change? Currently, you would need to research custom home builders who have experience in any form of barrier-free design and start the lengthy process of designing and building your home to suit your needs seeing as so few dwellings are available for rent of purchase.

Now, back to VisitAbility.  There is one area of hope in the Ontario Building Code, section that now requires VisitAbility in one type of dwelling: Group C Major Occupancy (which are buildings taller than three storeys or with a building area greater than 600 square meters).  On January 1, 2015, section of the OBC improved and now requires 15% of units in Group C Major Occupancy to be VisitAble (barrier-free access into and throughout the unit, including the washroom where a 5 foot turning radius is also required).  For me personally, this improvement to section was significant because it's the first type of dwelling in Ontario that requires barrier-free design, which will inevitably increase the quality of life for anyone purchasing one of these units.  It will welcome everyone, will make it a safer environment to live in, and it won't force you to move when your physical needs change (there is a direct correlation between aging and a decrease in mobility so your physical needs will change).

I would also like to point out that although you've probably never heard of VisitAbility, it's international.  Some countries have barrier-free design in their national building codes, such as Australia where VisitAbility is required (I have three great documents from Australia regarding VisitAbility that would silence any cynic). Another great thing about VisitAbility is that it's very simple to accomplish, and costs very little once techniques are understood and experience is gained.

So why would I make a statement that there is disability discrimination in most dwellings?  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids discrimination based on an individual's disability so how does the housing industry fail in this area?  The majority of developers and home builders don't offer barrier-free house plans as part of their inventory of plans, and most wouldn't even know where to begin if someone approached them with such a request.  Even more disappointing, some developers and home builders have gone to court to resist VisitAbility initiatives in certain US States with fear-mongering that it would destroy the housing industry or drive up costs dramatically.  I can understand that the housing industry is tired of a constant increase in regulation and taxation in housing but why resist an improvement to design that would have such a positive impact on the quality of life of their customer?  And why resist an improvement to design that would most certainly decrease injuries and deaths in homes as a result of this poor design?  I guess ignorance is the answer, and myths that barrier-free design is ugly and that no one wants it.

I have written a previous blog post about the Bridgwater development in Winnipeg, Manitoba because it's Canada's first neighbourhood with a 50% requirement for VisitAble homes (1,100 VisitAble homes once fully developed in 2021, with hundreds already built).  It's this type of innovative approach to new housing that needs to be replicated nation wide because of its inclusive urban design.  The Bridgwater development is exactly what's needed to begin the process of eliminating disability discrimination in housing.  I toured this development in June and I can say that it was stunning.  I fully acknowledge that many of these homes are expensive and larger, and out of reach for many individuals but I do have photos of homes that are approximately 1,000 square feet so VisitAbility is also feasible in smaller, more affordable homes.  And the photos that I have of the many model homes that I toured showcase the beautiful interior design of these VisitAble homes. Here's a brief video from VisitAble Housing Canada that showcases Bridgwater, and some of their beautiful VisitAble homes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkHMtqeQOvE&feature=youtu.be

This blog post may have jumped around in thought but the point I was trying to make is that we already have an example of inclusive urban design and VisitAble homes here in Canada.  Eliminating disability discrimination in housing is already happening in Bridgwater.  If you want a US example of innovative community planning containing Universal Design and VisitAbility, please refer to LEED v4 for Neighbourhood Development from the US Green Building Council at: http://www.usgbc.org/resources/leed-v4-neighborhood-development-current-version

Whether you focus on Bridgwater or LEED v4 ND, it's important to understand that they're not concepts to aspire to, they're already happening in certain communities and it's time for the rest of the housing industry to catch up.  Consumers deserve better designed homes seeing as it's our largest investment in our lives, and where we spend the greatest portion of any day.  So why not make it safer, more welcoming, and more sustainable...it's simply the right thing to do?