We should be aiming towards universal design. Everyone ought to be able to access, understand, and use every building and service, to the greatest possible extent, regardless of age, size, or disability.
We have a long way to go to get there, and every day our aging population will bring our deficiencies into ever clearer focus. Many buildings are only accessible through stairs, or the corridors are too narrow for a wheelchair, or the doors are difficult for many people to open. Many public services can’t be used or understood by people with visual or hearing impairments.
Some of these challenges are difficult and expensive to correct. For example, many older buildings, particularly in the historic downtown, are difficult and expensive to retrofit with elevators, accessible washrooms, and wider corridors. But we need to move forward as quickly as we can.
The City should start by applying universal design to its own buildings and services. City buildings should all be accessible. Metrobus should have audible stop announcements. The City should offer exercise classes that are accessible to people with mobility issues or who are recovering from injuries. Etc.
The first step to improving our private buildings and services is to identify which buildings and services are accessible already. It isn’t obvious: accessibility challenges can be easy to misunderstand. As a performer and arts administrator, I have a lot of experience with people saying their buildings are accessible when they aren’t—and vice versa!
Identifying accessibility challenges helps empower people to make informed choices. It also sets the foundation for concrete steps to promote accessibility. The City should set up a system of moderate incentives to encourage businesses to (1) develop a realistic plan for improving accessibility and (2) follow through.
It’s possible that tougher provincial accessibility legislation is coming. If it is, St. John’s can do its businesses and residents a favour by getting ahead of the ball; if not, the City has the onus of improving things here.
[See also: Public transit, Affordable Housing.]