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New accessible public spaces standards – What you need to know

Last week, I reviewed the new accessibility standards for buildings that the Ontario government has incorporated into the Building Code. These changes are extensive, and organizations planning new construction or extensive renovations must understand the new requirements.

Today, I’ll review the other side of the government’s accessible standards for the built environment under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the design of public spaces. Like the buildings standards, the accessibility standard for public spaces applies to new construction and extensive changes to existing spaces. It covers the following features.

Recreational trails and beach access routes

When an affected organization plans to build or modify a public recreational trail, it must consult the public, including persons with disabilities on:

  • The trail’s slope
  • The need for and location of ramps on the trail
  • The need for, location of and design of rest areas, passing areas, viewing areas, amenities and other features on the trail

Organizations must also follow the new requirements, including minimum width and height guidelines and maximum slope requirements.

Outdoor public eating areas like rest stops or picnic areas

When planning to build or substantially modify an outdoor public eating area, organizations must ensure:

  • At least 20 percent, and no fewer than one, of the tables are accessible to people using mobility aids, such as wheelchairs
  • The ground leading to and under the accessible tables is level, firm and stable
  • Enough space is clear around the accessible tables so people using a mobility aid can approach the tables

Outdoor play spaces, like playgrounds in provincial parks and local communities

Before building or modifying play spaces, organizations must consult with the public, including persons with disabilities. Organizations must specifically seek input on the needs of children and caregivers. Plans must:

  • Incorporate accessibility features into the design for children and caregivers with various disabilities, such as sensory and active play components
  • Make sure there is enough room for children and caregivers with various disabilities to move through, in and around the play spaces
  • Make sure the ground surface is firm, stable and designed to reduce impact to help prevent injuries

Outdoor paths of travel, like sidewalks, ramps, stairs, curb ramps, rest areas and accessible pedestrian signals

When building or modifying exterior travel paths, organizations must follow certain new requirements, including:

  • Minimum width and height requirements
  • Slopes of sidewalks, walkways and ramps cannot exceed certain ratios
  • Surfaces of ramps and stairs must be firm, stable and slip resistant.

Accessible parking

The new public spaces standard requires organizations to include two types of accessible parking spaces when building or modifying off-street parking:

  • Wider spaces for people who use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs
  • Standard-width spaces for people who use mobility assistive devices, such as canes, crutches and walkers

In addition:

  • Off-street parking facilities must include a minimum number of each type of accessible parking space, depending on the total number of parking spaces
  • Accessible parking spaces must have access aisles (a space between parking spaces) that allow people with disabilities to get in and out of their vehicles

Public sector organizations that wish to add or modify on-street parking must consult with the public, including persons with disabilities, on the design and location of such parking spots.

Service-related elements like service counters, fixed queuing lines and waiting areas

Organizations that operate service counters must include at least one accessible counter when they add or modify facilities. An accessible service counter:

  • Is low enough for someone sitting in a mobility aid
  • Has enough clear space in front for a person in a mobility aid to approach the counter, including space for the person’s knees

In addition:

  • If your organization has one queuing line for several service counters, such as a coffee shop, each service counter must be accessible
  • If your organization offers different types of services counters, each with its own queuing line, such as a large grocery store with regular, express and self-serve checkouts, you must make sure at least one of each type of service counter is accessible
  • You must clearly identify all your accessible service counters with signage
  • Fixed queuing areas (e.g., with fences or railings) must be wide enough for people using mobility aids and mobility assistive devices, such as canes, crutches and walkers, to move through the line, including when the line changes direction
  • People who are blind or who have vision loss should be able to detect fixed queuing areas with a cane, for example, by using tactile flooring

When building or substantially modifying waiting areas with fixed seating, organizations must ensure that at least three percent of the new seating and no fewer than one seating space is accessible.

Maintenance and restoration of public spaces

The new requirements on maintaining and restoring accessible public spaces apply only to public sector organizations of any size and private organizations with 50 or more employees. Organizations must include in their accessibility plans:

  • Preventative and emergency maintenance procedures for the accessible parts of your public spaces, such as posting when regular maintenance occurs and letting people know about alternatives
  • Procedures for handling temporary disruptions in service when an accessible part of your public spaces stops working, such as putting up a sign explaining the disruption and outlining an alternative

Accessible design

Ontario seeks to build a reputation as a leader in accessible design, and other jurisdictions are taking note. In addition, the province is hoping to move beyond a simple “barrier-free” approach toward “universal design.” The main goal of barrier-free design is to modify spaces and eliminate physical obstacles to provide equitable access for persons with disabilities. This is a stringent and important standard, but with its focus on persons with disabilities, it lacks universality and integration and acts as an interim measure on the road to full accessibility. The goal of universal design on the other hand is to create spaces and products that are inherently accessible. That is, in the words of architect Ron Mace, founder of the Centre for Universal Design, “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” According to the centre:

The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

The Accessible Standard for the Design of Public Spaces was added to the Integrated Accessibility Regulations in January 2013, and will come into effect over the next four years: January 2015 for the government and legislative assembly, 2016 for designated public sector organizations, 2017 for large organizations and 2018 for small organizations.

This is an ongoing and likely never-ending process, and it will be fascinating to see just how far Ontario has come by 2025. It also means that most organizations in Ontario will have to take some action.

The requirements are quite technical and complex, and will be an arduous endeavour for any business to undertake, but it must be done. Most businesses and certain professionals as well as municipalities will need to comply, and this includes: Building Owners, Educational Institutions, Day Cares, Architects, Engineers, contractors, construction companies, and landscapers among others.

They will have to think of accessibility in public places such as parking spaces, pathways, entrances, waiting areas, eating areas, play spaces, service counter spaces, among others.

In addition, the finance department or chief financial officer of an organization will have to consider the costs of implementing the requirements overtime, in future fiscal year budgets.

Architects, engineers and built accessibility consultants and designers will have to be retained to review and oversee some of these changes for compliance with the law.

Accessibility Standards PolicyPro

Accessibility Standards PolicyPro

To help interested stakeholders, information on the accessibility requirement for public spaces will be added sometime in 2014 in Accessibility Standards PolicyPro publish by First Reference.

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Adam Gorley

Editor at First Reference
Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.), is a researcher, content provider and editor. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks and Internal Control blogs, HRinfodesk and other First Reference publications. His areas of focus include broad human resources issues, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance and government policies, information technology and labour market trends.Read more
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