Creating Accessible Journeys: Interview with Velanie George, DesignABLE Environments Inc.

By Julia Rojas-Contento, volunteer writer

This blog is the third in our series exploring accessibility. Read the previous post here.

Julia Rojas-Contento is a volunteer writer for pointA and worked with pointA this past summer as a Business Development Officer. She interviewed Velanie George, Intermediate Accessibility Specialist at DesignABLE Environments Inc. to learn more about the importance of accessibility and how it relates to city infrastructure. They met through StopGap Foundation, an organization that aims to create “barrier-free spaces and provide support to create them.” After nearly three years with StopGap, George began working for DesignABLE in 2019 to further her goal to create accessible spaces.

Who benefits from accessible design?

Velanie George began working with StopGap as a volunteer through a project for her Inclusive Design class as part of her undergraduate degree in Environmental Design from OCAD University, and joined the team as an employee soon after graduation.

StopGap Foundation is a Toronto-based charity that helps create more accessible spaces across Canada. Their main initiative is the Community Ramp Project, which enables volunteers to organize their own community awareness initiatives to build colourful wooden ramps that help people access building entrances that are one step up from the sidewalk.

When asked what lesson she took away from her work with StopGap, George says that her experience highlighted that accessible design benefits everyone. “StopGap’s access ramps were created so that single-step entrances could be accessed by people using wheelchairs, but it quickly became apparent that the ramps were helping many more people in the community, like parents pushing strollers, delivery people with carts and dollies, and anyone who might experience difficulty taking on a large step. We even received a message from someone saying that the ramps helped their dog with arthritis! Accessible and universal design features benefit everyone, not just the people they were designed for.”

What are municipal governments doing to make cities more accessible and how does DesignABLE support that work?

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA) was enacted to improve accessibility standards for Ontarians with physical and mental disabilities and applies to a person or organization that does at least one of the following activities:

  • Provides goods, services or facilities
  • Employs people in Ontario
  • Offers accommodation
  • Owns or occupies a building, a structure or a premises
  • Plays a part in a business or other activity that the regulations may identify

AODA also mandates that cities with 10,000 people or more must establish a municipal accessibility advisory committee, with the majority of the committee composed of members with disabilities. These committees advise city councils on AODA standards and requirements.

Many municipal governments have taken accessibility one step further by developing their own Facility Accessibility Design Standards (FADS). These standards are resources for architects and designers looking for accessible design requirements that go beyond code minimums and include additional information not included in Ontario’s Building Code Act (1992) or in the AODA.

DesignABLE’s President, Bob Topping, was the lead author for the Facility Accessibility Design Standards for City of London in 2001, which was the first municipality in Canada to develop its own standard. City of London’s design standards have since been used by other municipalities across Canada to develop their own standards of accessible design.

George’s work with DesignABLE involves helping clients create environments that achieve the best possible standard of accessible and universal design. “My responsibilities include reviewing architectural designs for accessibility compliance, meeting with clients to discuss an accessibility strategy and its implementation within projects, helping to create accessibility standards, conducting research and writing reports on accessibility issues, and helping to facilitate Accessibility Advisory Group meetings to review client projects.”

How does DesignABLE help make transportation more accessible?

DesignABLE has worked on several projects for TTC and Metrolinx, which involves reviewing station transit stops’ designs for accessibility compliance beyond code minimums. “We consider accessible design elements such as the barrier-free path of travel, seating, signage, TWSIs (Tactile Walking Surface Indicators), customer service, washrooms and their accessories, PDOs (Power Door Operators), Areas of Refuge, lighting, colour contrast, and much more.”

“Transportation and accessibility go hand in hand. For [public] transportation to be successful, it must be accessible and usable by all people.”

To George, for cities and transportation to be accessible, people also “must have numerous means and methods of transportation and the flexibility to choose the best one to suit their personal needs and abilities.”

“When we design pedestrian access routes and transit systems, facilities, and infrastructure to be accessible and usable by everyone, we provide people with options and flexibility in what route they can take, or which means they can use to travel to their destination.”

“If pedestrian access routes and transit systems, facilities, and infrastructure are inaccessible, it limits the way users are able to travel. This results in users relying on single occupancy vehicles like accessible taxis (which cost significantly more than transit fare) because this method of transportation ends up being the most convenient and straightforward, and in some cases the only option.”

What advice would you give to any city when considering creating accessible spaces?

When thinking about improving accessibility in our transportation system, George stresses the importance of getting feedback from people with lived experiences navigating accessibility challenges, and that one should adopt a “Nothing About Us, Without Us” mentality, where the people the design is intended to serve are involved in the planning and design process.

She also emphasizes the importance of incorporating accessibility at the very beginning of the project, and at all stages, beginning with the feasibility study and pre-design stage up until the construction phase. “This is important because accessibility plays a significant part in informing the design and needs to be thought of relative to the site layout, functional program, space impact, and project budget. When accessibility becomes an afterthought and is considered at later stages of the project (or in some cases, after construction!) it leads to time-consuming and frustrating design changes, or costly renovations.”

What do you imagine the future of accessible transportation will look like for the City of Toronto?

“The future of accessible transportation within our city depends greatly on the people who have the power and authority to ensure that accessibility is considered and implemented. Architects, designers and planners have the ability to go beyond minimum code requirements for accessibility and aim for best practices. Government officials have the authority to create and enforce legislation in favour of accessibility and to allocate much-needed funding to transportation to make it more accessible. In order for transportation to continually improve, we need to vote for officials that make accessibility a priority – while also holding current officials accountable for meeting existing legislation.”

How does this work relate to pointA?

Understanding the challenges and needs of individuals is crucial when looking to encourage more people to commute sustainably, and this is central to pointA’s work in transportation demand management. pointA has delivered station access projects on behalf of Metrolinx to understand how people travel to the station and to educate commuters on alternatives to driving to the station. Through the Smart Commute program, pointA provides the support, knowledge and incentives to encourage more people to commute sustainably and looks forward to continuing to explore accessibility issues.

A big thank you to Velanie George for sharing her knowledge, and to Julia for taking the time to interview her.

Note: pointA does not derive any monetary benefits from the aforementioned company or have any working relationship with them.

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