Ontario needs to stop exempting homes from barrier-free design standards and move forward with VisitAbility in a portion of new homes (15% to 20% to coincide with the aging population).
Ontario will be increasing requirements for barrier-free design features in 15% of apartments, condominiums, and a number of other multi-unit dwellings as of January 1, 2015 in buildings taller than three storeys or 600 meters square in footprint (Group C Major Occupancy in the Ontario Building Code, section 188.8.131.52). These multi-unit dwellings are the only type of housing that contain any type of barrier-free design consideration for the needs of individuals with mobility challenges; all homes continue to be exempt in our building code (see 184.108.40.206). The unfortunate consequence is that the majority of the housing industry continues to build homes that contain architectural barriers, which makes them completely impractical for a growing number of Ontarians. It seems illogical to continue with building practices that exclude a portion of families, baby boomers and anyone else needing more practical homes. One example of an innovative housing solution is called VisitAbility, which has three basic features: one zero-step entrance, wider doors and hallways, and a main floor powder room or bathroom that can be used by someone who requires a mobility aid/device. This simple concept is already available in hundreds of homes in Winnipeg, which will increase to 1,100 homes once the Bridgwater neighbourhood is fully developed in 2021.
The brilliance of VisitAbility is that it’s simple to implement and cost-effective, due to the fact that it only requires minor design changes during the planning stage of a new build. Although this term may not be familiar to most of you, VisitAbility has been extremely successful in certain parts of the United States since its beginning in 1987, as a result of the efforts of individuals like Eleanor Smith at concretechange.org. One community near Chicago (Bolingbrook, Illinois) mandated VisitAbility for all new homes in 2003 with their VisitAbility Ordinance and now boasts nearly 4,000 of these homes (at an additional cost of $500 to $800 per home for these basic features). These are homes with full basements, not the slab on grade design that is found in the 22,000 VisitAble homes in Tucson and Pima County, Arizona. Whether in Winnipeg, Bolingbrook or Tucson, these communities have proven that cost effective options already exist to address the housing needs of a growing number of Ontarians by simply moving forward with more modern techniques in new home design. The most obvious benefit is that these homes can be occupied by 100% of prospective home buyers, regardless of age or level of ability.
The majority of the housing industry has not been supportive of barrier-free design in homes, possibly because homes are the last area of new construction that is not required to comply with barrier-free design requirements in Ontario. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, as well as upcoming improvements to the Ontario Building Code, will inevitably change these current practices, albeit too slowly in my opinion. We must stop building homes that exclude a growing number of Ontarians from entering or living in them, simply because we lack the initiative to replicate best practices from neighbourhoods like Bridgwater in Winnipeg. Research has clearly proven that VisitAbility is cost effective and would offer housing options not currently available to far too many individuals. When will we finally get the hint that change is urgently needed, and that VisitAbility is a reasonable solution to our changing housing needs as we age?
Please visit visitablehousingcanada.com for more information about our national VisitAbility Project currently being promoted by six task forces nation-wide: Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Richmond and Victoria. If you would like to learn more about VisitAbility in Ottawa, please join us for our monthly meetings of the Ottawa VisitAbility Task Force at 100 Constellation Crescent.