Friday, November 27, 2015

Commentary as I approach the end of my term with VisitAble Housing Canada

Disclaimer: The comments in this blog are my own and don’t reflect in any way on VisitAble Housing Canada, or my current employment in the disabilities sector.

As I approach the end of my term in the national VisitAbility Project, a three year project funded by the federal government's Social Development Partnerships Program, Disability Component, I would like to share a few comments with all of you. I have been advocating for barrier-free design in dwellings for quite a few years now and I was very pleased to be invited by the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies to join this national project in the Fall of 2013.  The Ottawa VisitAbility Task Force started in December 2013, one of six task forces in this project, and will conclude in December 2015.

Throughout my years of advocacy and task force work, I've noticed some common themes in housing.  I have done quite a few presentations to different stakeholder groups and one fact that is still a bit difficult for me to accept is that very few people are interested in removing architectural barriers in homes, whether it be consumers or the housing industry.  To be fair, there are some best practices by municipalities that are commendable (especially in social and affordable housing) and some entrepreneurial/innovative companies have already been offering barrier-free design, typically in custom homes.  Most impressive has been co-operative housing because they've had barrier-free housing stock for decades, so they definitely deserve some praise, as do the many individuals who were involved in these projects.

Another theme that's come up during presentations is pride and denial regarding barrier-free design: "I don't want it" or "I don't need it" type statements are unfortunate because barrier-free design benefits far more than just seniors and persons with disabilities.  Many people don't think of the benefit to parents with young children: a no-step entrance means that you can just roll into your home with your stroller and diaper bag, which is very convenient if your child has fallen asleep while you were out with him/her for an errand, or simply for a bit of fresh air at your local park.  Others don't think of the safety and convenience for moving and delivery companies: a no-step entrance and wider doors and hallways makes their job a whole lot easier, and less likely to damage your property or injure the employee.  And even more important, barrier-free design in dwellings reduces response times by emergency responders because they can get in and out of your home faster during those critical calls. Another advantage is the ability to welcome all guests into your home, even if they require the use of a mobility device.  So barrier-free design does benefit most occupants and guests, even if our society doesn't recognize its value.

As task force coordinator in Ottawa, I would like to give some praise to our nation's capital on some of their efforts.  The City of Ottawa Affordable Housing Unit has been very proactive in increasing their percentage of units with barrier-free design, from the low-cost features of VisitAbility, up to and including full accessibility for some units. Some of you might not know that Ottawa was certified as an Age-Friendly City by the World Health Organization in 2013, and Mayor Jim Watson moved forward with his re-election promise to create an Older Adult Plan in 2012, in recognition of the aging population.  Ottawa City Council voted in favour of the next phase of the Older Adult Plan on October 28th (2015-2018), and I'm pleased to see that promoting adaptable, age-friendly homes has been included in the Housing section of this plan, with the Planning and Growth Management department receiving this mandate for 2016.  One other best practice in Ottawa has been Phoebe Services and the VisitAble investment property in our city's west end that is lead by Dr Bruce Firestone; I'm one of the investors in this property so I'm biased but still consider it a great benefit because it excludes no-one from renting that bungalow.

One other achievement in Ottawa that I would like to express thanks for is Carleton University, and their culture of accessibility and inclusion.  I've had the good fortune of collaborating with Dean Mellway of the READ Initiative (Research, Education, Accessibility and Design) as well as the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism during my term as task force coordinator.  Most exciting has been the curriculum change to the Architecture department's Studio 6, which now includes accessibility and VisitAbility in their course outline.  I was also very grateful for Professor Benjamin Gianni and Professor Honorata Pienkowska-Roseman's support and participation in our joint effort for a VisitAble Townhouse design competition.  Thirteen designs were submitted by 4th year architecture students and I'm pleased to say that the two winning designs will soon appear on and on Facebook at Support VisitAble Housing in Canada.  Given that townhomes are also exempt from barrier-free design standards in building code, the architecture department's willingness to participate in this competition was not only appreciated but indicative of Carleton University's support of accessibility and inclusion.

I would also like to give praise to the Bridgwater project in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a wonderful Canadian example of an inclusive community where 50% of homes must be VisitAble (hundreds already, with 1,100 once fully developed in 2021).  I had the pleasure of visiting Winnipeg in June and touring this wonderful community (I wrote a blog post about it as well).  The government of Manitoba deserves some praise for being the developer of the Bridgwater project because this innovative project is stunning, a wonderful example of beautiful barrier-free design.  Other communities in Canada have also shown their support for inclusive design and can be found in one of the research documents produced and found at (Literature Review and Environmental Scan).

The beautiful VisitAble homes that I've seen and toured in Winnipeg, Manitoba (June, 2015) and Bolingbrook, Illinois (Fall, 2012) dispel the myths that VisitAbility is ugly or institutional; I have many photos on my laptop to prove otherwise. And speaking of my laptop, I have a wealth of research documents (domestic and international), photos of beautiful design, and items from our national VisitAbility Project that I would be happy to share if anyone is interested, or I would also be willing to customize a presentation if requested.

To conclude, I would like to discuss next steps in my advocacy for barrier-free design in dwellings.  I have submitted a Code Change Request to the Canadian Codes Centre (CCR #964) which will begin its public meetings on December 15-16, 2015 in Ottawa. I have proposed VisitAbility for new dwellings that are at grade, and for those that can be accessed by an elevator.  Some of you may not know that the Ontario Building Code now contains VisitAbility for one type of dwelling (all others are still exempt from barrier-free design requirements): 15% of suites in residential buildings taller than three storeys or with a building area greater than 600 square meters must be VisitAble.  My hope is that Code Change Request #964 will achieve a similar result with the National Building Code, as a minimum (but all dwellings at grade or served by an elevator would be better).  Beyond the Code Change Request, my passion for barrier-free design in dwellings will never cease, simply because it's the right thing to do.  I've worked in the disabilities sector since September 1994 and have seen the benefits to an individual's quality of life when barrier-free features are designed into a dwelling, and I've also seen the devastation when they're not (relatives, clients and acquaintances). My father said something really kind a couple of months ago: "Son, you will succeed with this in your lifetime". It's those types of moments that re-invigorate me when the indifference and resistance themes keep popping up.

God willing, some day my prayers for safer, more welcoming and more sustainable homes will be answered.