Exploring Accessibility: pointA’s Executive Director, Dorinda So, in Conversation with Sin-Tung Lau, Research Associate at the KITE Research Institute

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pointA’s mission is to provide the knowledge, support, and incentives to encourage people to get around sustainably, from walking and cycling to carpooling and public transit. However, we recognize that there are many barriers to accessing these forms of transportation beyond that of availability, from disabilities to perceptions of safety and financial limitations for individuals and issues with design, use, and management of infrastructure that underpin these transportation methods. These barriers can be visible or invisible and can be highly contextual and fall under the term ‘accessibility.’

This blog post is the first of a series on accessibility where we explore what accessibility is, how it affects sustainable transportation and getting around, and ultimately, how we can work together to remove barriers so that more people can travel sustainably.

To help us define and understand accessibility as it relates to transportation, I spoke to Sin-Tung Lau, Research Associate at KITE Research Institute – a research arm of Toronto Rehab. She works in a lab called EnAbl, which is part of the Home, Community and Institutional Environments Team, with Dr. Alison Novak, whose research studies mobility within challenging environments such as stairs and bathrooms. Dr. Novak is also involved in the changes to the National Building Code of Canada and Canadian accessibility standards, which is also the focus of Lau’s work.

What does accessibility mean?

The term ‘accessibility’ is used a lot, but agreeing on a definition has been contentious, with customers and businesses often having a different concept of what it means for something to be accessible. While Ontario was the first jurisdiction globally to set out accessibility goals in legislation as outlined in Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA), it still fails to define accessibility, according to a review by the Honorable David Onley. Onley’s review recommends a clear definition of accessibility and clearer guidelines about specific steps organizations can take to become accessible.

Part of the reason why accessibility is so hard to define is that it can mean something different to every person, regardless of whether they are the person with the disability, the parent, the caregiver, or friend. To Sin-Tung Lau, accessibility means “being able to make choices and having the opportunity of different choices to choose from. It’s about autonomy and independence to participate in the community.”

In mid-2019, the federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act, 2019, which identified seven areas where barriers should be identified, removed, and where new barriers should be prevented:

  1. Employment
  2. The built environment
  3. Information and communication technologies
  4. Communication (other than information and communication technologies)
  5. The procurement of goods, services and facilities
  6. The design and delivery of programs and services
  7. Transportation

Passing legislation is just the first step. The second step, implementation, requires the development of a set of accessibility standards. As such, the federal government created Accessibility Standards Canada to create these standards while Lau’s multidisciplinary team collaborated with the Canadian Standards Association to create a roadmap that recommends which priorities should be implemented first based on gaps and needs.

The team looked at the barriers that various disability organizations put forth, which led them to conduct their own national survey of barriers that people were experiencing. The survey asked what the key barriers are within the different priority areas in accessibility and how these barriers affect their quality of life but also allowed respondents to provide written comments to contextualize and clarify their answers – something often missing in the consultation and consideration of people with disabilities who feel either invisible or not given a voice.

The roadmap also identified future areas for standards development, recognizing that things change over time and that standards, along with legislation needs to follow suit. Lau explains, “Before I did this kind of work, I used to think standards were concrete and non-evolving. But it’s similar to a policy or program – it’s something that evolves. So at KITE, we have to ask whether the standards address the barriers people are facing now and in the future because the world is always changing and so we need to improve upon the standards that we have.”

Before I did this kind of work, I used to think standards were concrete and non-evolving. But it’s similar to a policy or program – it’s something that evolves.

How do transportation and accessibility standards intersect?

“It’s not just about getting on or off a vehicle to get from A to B, it’s everything…I think of [transportation] as part of the route for someone to get somewhere to participate in the community.”

In sharing this, Lau helped me connect the dots between her work in accessibility to transportation and then to broader societal goals of transportation: childhood development and healthy living, societal participation, in addition to getting to and from work.

Lau didn’t come into this work by happenstance. As an undergraduate student as the University of Toronto, she wanted to become a speech therapist and started working with many organizations that served people with disabilities. But it was when she worked as a respite care provider, helping parents and caregivers care for children with disabilities that opened her up to work in accessibility. She recalled working with a child a few times a week to help the child access the community, whether that was going to the library or the park. Even though the child lived in an accessible neighbourhood, when winter came, it became physically impossible to push the child’s wheelchair even a few minutes to go to the library.

This is why accessibility matters: Barriers can severely limit one’s ability to participate in society, in the economy, in community, and by extension becomes a human rights and equity issue.

Rectifying this means addressing several accessibility priority areas related to transportation: built environment, customer service and program delivery, information and communication technology in addition to transportation itself.

In thinking about what it means for transportation to be accessible, Lau says, “It’s important to distinguish between accessible transportation or accessibility features in transportation. I think most readers would think of ‘accessible transportation’ as paratransit services exclusively (e.g., Wheel-Trans buses). Accessibility features, on the other hand, would be priority seating on any mode of transportation. Someone who has temporary mobility issues (e.g., a sprained ankle) may not qualify for, or need paratransit services.”

The temporal dimension of requiring accessibility features on transportation is further complicated by whether someone has an invisible or visible disability as Lau reminds us that there are many different types of disabilities that do not fit into neat categories.  

Not only does transportation have to accommodate for varying degrees and types of disabilities, but the built environment must be accessible for someone to get to the transportation. For instance, it’s not just about the placement of transit stops, but whether someone who uses a mobility device such as a wheelchair is able to access that transit stop in the winter.

Accessibility in customer service for transportation may involve someone who assists you in boarding the vehicle, as well as how the system is designed. “Booking is a huge issue because often with paratransit services, you have to book in advance. Some of the comments we’re getting is: ‘There’s no spontaneity in my life because everything is booked beforehand.’”

“Transportation also includes technology issues, like payment machines. That’s actually a huge area of accessibility in terms of how you go about using it, or booking a seat, or calling someone to book a ride beforehand.”

It’s not just about getting on or off a vehicle to get from A to B, it’s everything…I think of [transportation] as part of the route for someone to get somewhere to participate in the community.

How can we better approach accessibility?

Lau emphasizes the importance of recognizing that not all disabilities are visible, and it’s important to not make assumptions. “From my preliminary survey data analysis, some people are saying that while there are blue seats on a streetcar, they have an invisible disability. So if they use the seats, will they be judged for using them?”

Many organizations have advisory committees with people who have disabilities, and these committees can help improve services and challenge assumptions.

Ultimately, “the important thing is always be humble and ask. It’s better to work with people in the community and disability organizations and be open to others’ opinions.”

“Transportation is highly integrated with everything else and everyday life. It’s not just about trains and planes but more about being able to participate and live your life and make choices to go out and do what you want to do.”

A big thank you to Sin-Tung Lau for sharing with us her work and experiences in accessibility. She not only explained accessibility through the lens of legislation and standards, but also talked about her own lived experiences with accessibility. We at pointA think about transportation daily, but transportation is integral to so many aspects of life, regardless of whether we have disabilities or accessible needs. Therefore it is critical that we continue to work together to remove the barriers to accessibility and we look forward to continuing this important work.

Photo by Will Mu from Pexels

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