Unfortunately, most neighbourhood built environments are not designed for everyone. They can in fact create exclusionary environments for people with disabilities and older adults.
The pandemic brings into focus neighbourhood walkability and wheelability by highlighting persistent inaccessibility issues. It also creates the opportunity to advocate for change and bring about rapid and innovative solutions.
These barriers – like the condition of streets, sidewalks and crosswalks – can impact anyone but frequently affect those living with disabilities. Research finds that when streets are in even slight disrepair, people with severe mobility impairments are four times more likely to report difficulty walking compared with those living in “good” neighbourhoods (neighbourhoods without cracks in sidewalks and potholes). Even slightly increasing the quality of streets could help people both access and remain involved in their communities.
Simple measures, such as involving people with disabilities in research and planning, are found to create targeted solutions to barriers and enhance the accessibility of neighbourhoods.
In the past, there were limited opportunities for people with disabilities to have their opinions heard. With the recent rise of participatory research methods, however, they are increasingly working as “co-researchers”. This helps create opportunities for collaboration with municipal officials and community service providers.
The shift towards participatory research moves us away from only researchers collecting data. Innovative data collection methods, such as user-led environmental audit tools, champion this shift. They help capture the users’ perspective and provide a more holistic understanding of environmental features affecting walkability and wheelability.
For example, added challenges that have arisen in response to the pandemic can include communication difficulties for those who are deaf and hard of hearing caused by plexiglass shields and masks, inaccessibility of hand hygiene products for mobility device users because they’re placed too high and increased navigational barriers like those from pop-up patios.
As the pandemic draws on, it has become glaringly clear that people living with disabilities have been inordinately impacted. By and large, these strategies were intended to help us but they bring into focus our habitual pattern of overlooking accessibility and not consulting those with lived experiences.
A historical opportunity to advocate for change
Canada is at a historical crossroads to become barrier-free. The recent ushering in of accessibility acts, at both the federaland provincial levels, is creating the necessary infrastructure to enforce the creation of accessible built environments and the equitable inclusion of people with disabilities.
The alignment of research, public and political will and the pandemic-era realisation that radical and rapid social change is possible creates the perfect conditions to create a Canada that provides access for all.
Alison F Chung is a research assistant at Simon Fraser University and co-authored this article. She is working with the authors on a project titled: Towards Barrier-Free Communities: A Partnership for Improving Mobility, Access and Participation (MAP) Among People with Disabilities.