About three years ago, a rare bacterial infection led to the amputation of both my legs below the knee and some of my fingers. Oftentimes, the only thing that stops me from the possibility of entering a space is a short flight of stairs. If I were to be in a wheelchair, one meager step would be the culprit.
It becomes impossible to discuss the term “accessibility” without knowing about the guiding principles that make up the idea of what the field of architecture calls “universal design.”
Universal design was a response to the structural barriers individuals with physical disabilities face in their day to day lives. Things like ramps, textured strips for those with visual impairments, speech to text programs and magnetized buttons on shirts are all examples of universal design.
Anyone can benefit from using these objects or products. They make life more accessible and easier to manage for everyone despite their ability, age, gender, etc.
Universal design is built on seven different principles. Some of which include: equitability (everyone can use), simplicity (easy to use/figure out) and forgiving (makes room for error).
The simplest and easiest example would be the beloved ramp. A ramp does two things. First, it gets rid of a commonly found barrier called the stairs. Second, it heralds the arrival of new ideas, teamwork, participation, discussion and friendships. A simple ramp can also be the beginning of the powerful concept we call inclusion.
In Yellowknife, there is still a lot of work to be done. The city is still at the beginning when it comes to accessibility for individuals with physical disabilities. Most of the newer buildings adhere to the National Building Code, but construction companies do so of their own volition.
The National Building Code is not a legally binding document and the territory has no building code of its own. As a result, many of the places of business in Yellowknife are fortified by stairs. Moreover, these stairs become covered in snow, sleet, ice and slush during the winter months, severely limiting the opportunity for individuals with disabilities —or those requiring assistive devices like canes and walkers—to engage in recreational activities or complete simple errands. An enforceable building code would not only open the door for many individuals with physical disabilities, but it would also prompt a shift in the way we see individuals with disabilities.
Partnered with universal design is Inclusive Design Thinking (IDT). This concept has less to with physical structures and is, instead, more concerned with the ethos of a space. IDT asks questions like: Who am I hiring? How welcomed do people from marginalized populations feel in my place of business? Am I open to feedback, and if so, do I modify accordingly?
A friend of mine explained the difference best when she said: There is no point making your business accessible if you are not willing to hire someone with a disability. As a result, one’s hiring practices are just as critical as a ramp when it comes to accessibility. This does not mean that those who own businesses with stairs are not empathetic and kind people. What it means is that accessibility is more than a concept. It encompasses the totality of the day to day experiences of individuals living with disabilities. In some ways, the term accessibility is synonymous with how people with disabilities – or different abilities – encounter life.
As awareness of the importance of accessibility for individuals with disabilities continues to increase across Canada, Yellowknife must realize that it needs to make some serious moves to show that it too is paying attention. If not, the metropolitan city of the Northwest Territories will be left behind.