What is accessibility? As a 3’5” scooter user with no arms, for me accessibility means barrier-free access to all the world has to offer. It’s a simple principle, but one not often seen in our public spaces. Even the legal regulations and design standards meant to ensure universal accessibility often fall well short of their goal, if they’re met at all. From the limited assumptions of what “accessibility” entails to the inadequate codes that enforce it, there’s still a long way to go. We need to completely transform how we think about accessibility, starting with a real definition of what it means — one rooted in the diverse lived experiences of people with disabilities.
Living in Toronto, I’m personally faced with barriers that make daily life difficult. For example, I’m often dependent on asking a friendly stranger to open doors. Sometimes, there’s an automatic door opener but no ramp, or a ramp and no door opener. Often there’s an automatic door opener but I can’t reach the button, or it’s out of service with no other accessible entrance. And even when there is a ramp, some are very hard to navigate with a scooter because they’re either too narrow or the turn is too tight. There are even many places I am completely unable to enter due to a large step or even a full flight of stairs. And that’s just getting in the door! Even if I get inside, there are usually so many barriers that I’m unable to get around comfortably or without possibly breaking something.
Toronto’s streets are often no more welcoming. While the city’s sidewalks are full of barriers at the best of times, construction sites create an even greater challenge — often closing sidewalks without offering fully accessible alternatives. But perhaps the biggest barrier I face in my everyday life regards public washrooms. Although many public spaces have “accessible” washrooms, what’s considered accessible for some is not necessarily accessible for all. For example, a raised toilet is helpful for many but not for me; in fact, it makes things even more difficult.
Inaccessible spaces mean more than the existence of a physical barrier; they are also a safety threat. There are times when I’m stuck outside of buildings in the cold or late at night. There are instances where I’m trapped in between two doors, unable to get out. Whether I’m stuck inside a subway station because the elevator is out of service or I’m behind a door with no way to open it, these barriers not only fail to meet the standards set out in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), but they are immediate safety hazards. Being trapped is scary and makes me feel helpless. I hate the thought that — even as I type this — others are trapped in places around the city. We should all feel safe navigating our cities, not just able-bodied people.
Each day, I have to know in advance if everywhere I need to be is accessible for me, or if there is even an accessible route to get there. People assume that in Canada — in 2021 — most places meet those criteria; this, however, is not the case. Not only are there plenty of spaces not easily navigated by a large portion of society, but even when a place is considered accessible, it is a one size-fits-all approach. And without a clear definition of what “accessible” even means, I can see why.
I use a standard scooter to get around. It’s a model available to the general public and not specifically customized for me. Yet, I have been told on many occasions on public transit, accessibility lifts, and even elevators that my scooter is too big. Why is the standard size of mobility devices only based on the smallest of wheelchairs? Whenever I hit a physical barrier in the city that is supposedly “accessible,” I think, “accessible for whom?” And the answer appears to be only people using manual wheelchairs who have full use of their arms. Obviously, this is a very limited way to think about something as important as accessibility – it excludes so many people. The issue needs to be considered from a much broader perspective: we are all so different, which means our needs are different, too.
So, who’s missing the mark? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be everybody. From top to bottom: the people who created the standards with a narrow view of disability, those in charge of ensuring the standards have been implemented, the architects and city planners who treat these features as an afterthought – all able-bodied people. But the only ones who know what works and what doesn’t are those actually living with a disability and having to navigate the city every day.
There’s a big difference between a space complying with standards set out by the AODA or the City of Toronto’s Accessibility Design Guidelines and a space being truly, universally accessible. The City’s guidelines appear to be based on limited outreach and research, failing to accommodate the wide range of abilities of people accessing the spaces. What’s my solution? Hire the experts! I have long imagined putting together an accessibility consulting practice: a committee of people with all types of disabilities: people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, people who use prosthetic limbs or mobility devices such as crutches, canes, scooters, and wheelchairs, and also people who rely on service dogs. Hire us to visit existing spaces to share our experiences, give ideas and feedback on ways to make them more accessible, and invite us to consult on the initial design of new builds. We should be there at the beginning, middle and end of the design and build processes, to make sure spaces are truly safe and accessible to all.
For starters, I see this committee covering four categories: transportation, housing, interior public spaces and exterior public spaces.
The Greater Toronto Area has a long way to go before it has implemented even the most basic accessibility standards. Every TTC subway station needs to have an elevator, all buses need to have a kneeling function, and every bus stop needs to have space to deploy a lift or ramp. That said, there is still a lot of room for improvements with transit’s existing accessible infrastructure. On the GO bus, I’m often told that my scooter is too big to fit in the designated spot. On numerous occasions, when arriving at a subway stop that’s listed as accessible, the elevator is out of service — with instructions to get back on the subway, go three stops to the next accessible stop, and wait for an accessible bus to then take me back to the station I was already at. I would want my committee to make elevators our top priority, and to ride on every mode of transportation to ensure cohesion with accessibility features, like subway and train cars lining up with ramps.
Recently, I was in the market to find a new place to live. Even in 2020, my choices were limited, and the resistance of some building managers to install even the most basic accessibility features was infuriating. I asked for an automatic door to be installed in a building I was considering and the response was that they would install grab bars in my unit. Grab bars! For someone who has no hands! When I finally found a building that was willing to accommodate some of my accessibility needs, they put a huge sticker of the universal accessibility symbol on the outside of my apartment door, announcing to all the other residents that “a disabled person lives here”. Does that sound dignified to you?
Not only would an expert committee ensure that there are more accessible options for housing, but that our dignity is as important as all of the other accessibility features. I would lobby the City and condo developers to allocate an adequate percentage of all new builds to be accessible. And of course, my committee would be hired to make sure “accessible” really means what it should for all. For existing buildings, there is no good reason that they are not all equipped with automatic doors, at the very least.
Having an accessible entrance is just the first step in creating an accessible space. There are often so many barriers inside a building that it’s overwhelming to think about where to start. I’ve been inside buildings where, upon exiting the elevator, there’s a door that I cannot get to in order to enter a hallway. Or doors to offices that don’t have accessible openers. I’ve also entered buildings through automatic doors only to find stairs upon my arrival inside.
And have I mentioned how frustrating washrooms can be? My committee would be in charge of going through every public building, ensuring that there are truly no barriers for people using mobility devices or with other accessibility issues. If this sounds like a monumental task, that’s because it is.
Scooting around the city is not a fun task. The sidewalks are often too narrow to fit an ambulatory person as well as my scooter, forcing me to stop to let the person pass. The buttons at crosswalks are often not accessible for me, so I’m forced to scoot out into the street, hoping cars will stop.
And then there’s construction. Toronto is going through a major building boom, with construction hoarding and diverted sidewalks everywhere. And yet, there seems to be little oversight to ensure these diverted routes are accessible. This leaves me no option but to jump the curb and ride on the street while traffic is heading the same way. It’s not just inconvenient, but extremely dangerous. My committee wouldn’t even need to visit the city’s streets in order to give suggestions for making exterior public spaces more accessible — we already have a laundry list of changes that need to be implemented.
It will take major structural changes for our voices to be fully heard, but sometimes speaking up is all it takes to get started. A few years ago, I found myself repeatedly trapped between doors on a GO station train platform because the button for the automatic door was located completely out of my reach. What did I do? I made some phone calls, and they came to assess the barrier with me. They then installed the most beautiful button I have ever seen. It was placed in a very accessible spot: a three-foot-tall vertical bar, which made it easily reached – not just for me, but for people with various abilities.
These kinds of small fixes are encouraging — even if they remain one-offs. However, to build a truly accessible city, the needs of individuals with varying abilities must be critical to the initial design of public spaces, and not an afterthought. If only Toronto’s architects, designers and urban planners could see access as an exciting challenge to be incorporated, instead of defaulting to the eyesore accessibility features we often see now.
Part of an architect’s job is to not only build beautiful spaces, but also to fit into the city — and even more specifically the neighbourhood — they’re building in. That idea needs to be extended to all of the people who will be enjoying these spaces. It would be an absolute honour to create a committee to help make this city truly first class and accessible to all.
Although Talli Osborne was born missing her arms and stands at just over three feet tall, she was raised with the belief that she could do anything she set her mind to, and this is exactly how she lives her life. Talli has shared her story with thousands of students across North America, has been the keynote speaker at many corporate events, and did her first TED Talk in 2015. She also received a video endorsement from Sir Richard Branson, who included her in his Top 10 Most Inspirational People. Talli has shared her personal experiences with bullying on the CBC and hopes to truly make a difference.
While Talli feels that being an inspirational speaker was something she was born to do, she also loves music and is recognizable in many punk scenes around the world, fronting her own melodic-punk band. Talli’s positivity is infectious. She loves changing perceptions and attitudes, and sharing her stories with others. She wants to spread inspiration, love and punk rock, across the globe, one talk at a time.
Lead image by Ian Pettigrew.
Talli Osborne argues for a holistic understanding of accessibility, rooted in the lived experiences of people with varied levels of ability.