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Calgary is last among major cities for public space accessibility

By Dianne Miranda, February 27 2024—

Mapping Our Cities for All (MOCA), a report published in 2023 shows that Calgary lags behind major cities like Ottawa and Vancouver. The research reveals that 35 per cent of buildings in our city are considered to be inaccessible. 

Between the three cities, nearly 60 per cent of public spaces that were mapped in the research are either inaccessible or partially inaccessible to people with disabilities. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Dr. Alan Santiene Martino, assistant professor in the Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies Program at the U of C, stated that while there have been improvements in terms of accessibility in the city, the road is long when it comes to understanding accessibility beyond just physical spaces.

“I think [meaningfully inviting people with disabilities or simply not expecting people with disabilities to be a part of a space] is the biggest shift that needs to happen, including at the university,” said Martino. “How can we be thinking as a community much more proactively about accessibility?”

“I think if we’re able to include more voices of people with disabilities — and not just one kind of disability, but multiple experiences across the community — we’re going to have a much better experience in terms of proactively thinking about how we’re designing spaces in more careful ways,” Martino continued.

The MOCA project started in 2021 in partnership with AccessNow led by Dr. Victoria Fast and her then-master’s students Russell Copley and Rhiannon Scott. The research collected more than 126,000 data points and this collected data can be viewed on AccessNow’s interactive map where a location is assessed with accessibility levels with ratings of accessible, partially accessible and not accessible. Parking, building entrances, washrooms, height of tables, lighting, spaciousness and digital and braille menus were among the factors considered in these ratings. 

The study, initiated at the U of C stands as Canada’s most extensive accessibility research initiative thus far. It leverages geographic data and input from individuals with firsthand experiences of disability to evaluate levels with ratings. 

“I think that when we think about accessibility, we’re still immediately thinking about a ramp at the back of the building or an elevator that sometimes we might have, but people still need to call a number and ask someone to unlock it,” Martino said. “For me, especially as a disability studies scholar, accessibility is much more than that. I think it’s about sensory experience. How do we deal with the overstimulating spaces that sometimes we have? It’s about audio. Are we using mics when we are teaching class and making that a part of our habit? Making sure the material we use is accessible — PDF documents, books and ebooks, for example.”

The purpose of this research is to assist the federal government in achieving the objectives outlined in the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). Enacted in 2019, the ACA is designed to pave the way for a barrier-free country for individuals with disabilities by the year 2040. 

“Thinking as a community, perhaps we can change our thinking in terms of how [we can] do our job as neighbours or how [we can] care for each other. It’s thinking from a community approach and centring voices [of people with lived experiences] so we can create better policies, better practices and we start thinking about disability from the get-go rather than tweaking and accommodation later on,” said Martino.  

Martino also commented on how academia and research can collaborate with local communities to improve the accessibility of public spaces.

“The purpose of us, scholars, students, and university is to try to use our resources, our knowledge and collaborate with communities — understanding that we bring different expertise to the table”, he said. “Community members and community organizations help [researchers] figure out what needs to be done. [We then] work together and mobilize policymakers, mobilize the government to get the resources we need.”

In the 2017 to 2022 Canadian Survey on Disability, findings show that 27 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older, or 8 million people, had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily lives. 

“The main lesson I’ve taken from colleagues in disability studies is the importance of challenging our assumptions that everyone is non-disabled,” said Martino. I think that real accessibility means meaningfully inviting, engaging, learning and unlearning from people who have lived experiences about how we can make spaces better. That will change the chemistry of the spaces and might end up changing the physical nature of the spaces.” 

To read the whole study and to view the interactive map, visit AcessNow.

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