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The Future is Accessible: The International Day of Persons with Disabilities

The Future is Accessible: The International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Rick Hansen is a Canadian icon who has dedicated his life to creating a world that is accessible and inclusive for all. Best known as the “Man In Motion” for undertaking an epic two-year circumnavigation around the world in his wheelchair, Rick is also a four-time world champion, nine-time Pan Am gold medalist, and three-time Paralympic gold medalist. Now the CEO of the Rick Hansen Foundation, an organization committed to creating a world without barriers for people with disabilities, Rick uses his presentations to challenge everyone to become a difference maker and a legacy leaver. In this column for The Globe and Mail, Rick reminds Canadians that our future must be an accessible one, for everyone:

I was recently in Ottawa for a meeting, and arrived at the main entrance of a brand new high-profile public building, which one would think would be fully accessible. In order for me to get where I needed to go, I had to go up a short flight of stairs with an electric lift next to it. The lift required me to call security who arrived with a special key to operate it.

While the whole process took approximately 10 minutes, it was an unnecessary inconvenience. A person with a disability should be able to independently operate a lift and get to where they need to go as quickly as their able-bodied counterpart.

My story isn’t unusual. Stairs instead of a ramp, and buildings without braille signage are common daily realities that confront the world’s largest minority group, representing over a billion people with disabilities.

In Canada, one in seven people live with a disability, and as baby boomers age, the forecast is for the number to grow to as high as one in five in the next 20 years.

“Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want” is the theme that marks this year’s United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3. As we look toward our future, one of the most significant barriers that people with disabilities still face is the built environment – essentially all the places we live, work and play.

The Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation, recently conducted a national survey that highlights the problems facing people with disabilities today. The data, gathered from a randomized sample of 1,330 people, reveal Canadians identify accessibility for people with disabilities as a top priority for new public buildings, with nearly nine in 10 surveyed saying a LEED-style program to rate building accessibility would be “worthwhile”.

With the goal of universal access as a priority for all Canadians, we are currently developing an accessibility certification program to drive adoption and recognition of inclusive design in the built environment. This program will simultaneously provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities, helping individuals reach their potential, while delivering a value-added service to developers, landlords and building owners.

Canadians see a large gap between how accessible private buildings currently are and how accessible they ought to be. The public also views one of the biggest obstacles to making accessibility a reality as the cost and difficulty of either designing fully accessible new buildings, or renovating those that aren’t.

While 92 per cent of Canadians agree that accessibility for people with physical disabilities is a basic human right, not a privilege, half of Canadians also agree with the statement “it’s understandable that employers feel it is risky to hire people with physical disabilities”.

Among those currently responsible for hiring decisions, 45 per cent cite expense of making a workplace accessible as one of the main reasons employers might have this opinion.

This perception needs to be disproved. We have a role to play to change attitudes and remove barriers so that employers are confident and comfortable hiring people with disabilities. Often it is a case of not knowing what they need to do to accommodate – and the answer may be a simple, low-cost change such as adding a ramp, adapting a workstation or incorporating large signage and braille.

With support from the Government of Canada, our Access4All Canada 150 Signature Initiative is helping by offering grants for accessibility infrastructure improvements.

Measuring awareness and attitudes toward people with disabilities allows us to see how far we have come, and also shines a light on areas where we still have room for improvement.

Canadians with a disability shouldn’t have to settle with being “lucky” to get into the building, they should be included in the building – period.

As we approach Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, join us in leaving a lasting legacy of creating an inclusive and accessible country where no Canadian is left behind.

Rick Hansen/Globe and Mail/December 2016