Building plans; Conversing with ASL; Woman using wheelchair nears moving sidewalk; Children using computer at Community Centre; Person reading Braille

Keeping Environments Accessible

by Matthew Fleet

Accessibility of the built environment isn’t just about ‘building’ it is also about ‘maintaining’. This article is not about building an accessible environment, it is about making sure an accessible environment stays accessible.

These are not issues for architects or engineers, these are issues for anyone operating and maintaining a building.

Clean doesn’t have to mean shiny:
Resist the temptation to polish those dull floors. A well intentioned cleaner may be proud of creating shiny clean floors, but they may in fact be turning carefully selected satin finish tiles into a glossy, glare producing barrier for someone with low vision. Highly reflective surfaces such as glossy floors can be uncomfortable for anyone but can be especially difficult for someone with low vision. Encourage maintenance staff to use floor finishes that do not leave glossy surfaces.

No scents in cleaning:
Similar to glossy finishes, there can also be fragrances used in maintenance products. A fresh fragrant scent might seem to go hand in hand with a clean environment but can be a barrier for someone with environmental sensitivities. This applies not just to cleaning products, but also to products intended for building users such as air fresheners or soaps in washrooms. Encourage maintenance staff to use scent neutral cleaning products and the same for anyone that purchases products for other use.

Clear floor spaces are meant to be clear:
Open floor space in vestibules, beside doors, in front of controls and even in bathroom stalls are essential manoeuvring spaces for those using mobility devices. For others, they are a tempting place to position literature racks, garbage cans, potted plants or store extra furniture. Let clear spaces do their job by keeping them clear and ensure the education about the purpose for these spaces is integrated into your staff training.

Dump the snow elsewhere:
Whether it’s because they’re typically at the end of rows or because they are more spacious, it is all too common for accessible parking spaces to become the dumping areas for snow when the lots are being cleared. At the very time of year when walking or pushing a wheelchair is most difficult, these spots nearest the door are suddenly unavailable. Similarly, it is convenient to shovel pathways only for the width of the snow shovel but this unfortunately not the passable
width for someone using a wheelchair. Clear snow from all of the parking spaces and for the entire width of the paths.

Keep door openers opening:
Power door openers are often symbolic of accessibility and while used by persons with disabilities they are also a convenience for others. Door operators usually have main on/off switches on the power unit above the door. This is convenient for owners wanting to shut down at closing time but also convenient for anyone else to fiddle with. Whether the door is turned off by good intentions or by mischievous hands, it is a good routine to start the day by ensuring that it is turned on. They are only useful when they are turned on. Even if the operator has been turned on, operators are of no use if access to the push button is locked by garbage cans, chairs, newspaper boxes or snow banks and the like.

Shop for accessibility:
Sometimes maintenance might mean replacing items in the environment. Perhaps furniture needs replacing or office equipment needs updating. Whatever the product is, keep accessibility in mind when shopping for its replacement. An accessible photocopier room is of little use if the new copier is not accessible. That accessible waiting room may no longer be accessible if the things like wider chairs for larger people or the chairs with armrests that helped older people stand up are no longer included. Also resist the temptation to procure extra furniture and lose the clear spaces that were important parts of the circulation space.

Keep people out of their own way:
Sometimes people themselves can make physical barriers to accessibility. A well designed approach to a building with a well-placed button for a power operator on an accessible door is jeopardized if a queuing line of people is blocking it. A market area where temporary stalls front directly onto pathways encourage shoppers to stop in the pathway make it difficult for those using mobility devices, guide dogs or white canes to manoeuvre around them. Consider traffic flows and congregating areas to ensure new barriers are not created.

Don’t let visual noise get in the way:
Easily navigable signage systems get disorienting, and calm environments get hectic when a multitude of signs and notices get taped to walls. Sometimes less is more. Accessible environments will have accessible wayfinding systems; when we start posting additional signs and notices we can muddle or confuse that system. When we bombard visitors with postings the volume becomes confusing and uncomfortable. If it is important to add signage to the existing system or to post important notices, try to keep it to a minimum and consistent with the existing accessible system.

This article was inspired by my personal frequent dismay from encountering barriers that have been created in an environment that was previously accessible. Too often, the work of architects, engineers, designers, consultants and accessibility advocates is lost when new barriers, such as those listed here, are introduced. While this article has been about avoiding sabotage of existing accessible environments, it is also mean to introduce some ideas that can be done to improve the accessibility of any environment. These are factors that usually didn’t cost a penny, but can make or break access to your building.

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