U of T to adopt new facility accessibility design standard

In 2019, discussions began between Facilities & Services and U of T’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) office about updating the University of Toronto’s Accessibility Design Standard. Given the age of the original document, they identified an opportunity to update the standard to bring it in line with current best practices. It was also more of a checklist than anything more detailed, focused almost exclusively on physical mobility issues with meager accounting for vision or hearing impairment, and no mention of Universal Design Principles.

A project was embarked upon to adopt a new, improved Facility Accessibility Design Standard that already existed outside of the university. One such well-known Standard was developed by accessibility consulting firm DesignABLE Environments Inc. for the city of London, Ontario, about 20 years ago. That Standard was then adopted and enhanced by other municipalities, and eventually tailored to university-specific spaces by Brock University and iterated upon by OCAD.

Property Management at U of T moved to revise the document further still, in consultation with DesignABLE Environments Inc. In 2019, a tri-campus technical working group was formed comprised of representatives and stakeholders from several faculties, student accessibility services, space planning, capital project design, and the AODA office.

In 2022 the committee met bi-weekly to review the design Standard with a critical approach. During this intensive review, the group was able to identify gaps and opportunities to make updates, propose additions and changes, and socialize the new Standard university-wide by working through any potential local barriers to adoption.

Mladen Pejic, Senior Project Manager, Accessibility with Facilities & Services, who participated in the working group and consulted with DesignABLE, said that these meetings led to a stream of excellent feedback and suggestions, many of which were driven by lived experience. “The Standard compiles a lot of the best accessible design practices that currently exist, but our review cycle is every three years. When we go to update it in the future, we will be able to incorporate more of the innovative proposals we heard during our discussions.”

In its current form the Standard primarily focuses on addressing physical and sensory barriers to accessibility, such as barrier-free paths of travel and tactile signage. Tactile Direction Indicators (TDIs) will be required from main entrances to reception desks and elevators, for example. However, the opportunity exists for future revisions to include requirements that create access for neurodiversity and mental wellness, as outlined in the final recommendations to the Ontario government from the Postsecondary Education Standards Development Committee.

Asked about the impact the new design standard will have on U of T’s campuses, AODA Officer Ben Poynton was optimistic. “We hope that this document will support planners and architects to create new and renovated University spaces that are truly barrier-free.”

Indeed, even before the new Standard is formally in place, U of T has made significant accessibility upgrades through recent revitalization projects. University College, for example, recently reopened with ramps with landing-delineated borders, automatic door openers, and a new elevator. The upgrades received praise from Canadian Architect Magazine for their high quality and seamless design. In February meanwhile, the renovated Arbor Room at Hart House received a gold accessibility certification by the Rick Hanson Foundation.

Poynton continued, “The Toronto Pan-Am Sports Centre was built to these standards and it’s an incredibly accessible facility, used by Wheelchair Basketball Canada. That’s a great example of the level of accessibility we can aspire to build going forward.”

While most accessibility accommodations cost very little to implement, investing to integrate accessible design from the beginning of projects will also save the University more money in the future. “We have institutional and legal responsibility to create accessible space,” said Poynton. “If you don’t build that into the design from the beginning, however much it costs, we’re going to have to pay significantly more for it in the future.”

Making the necessary improvements will also help the University attract more students and become a hub for people with disabilities who are widely underserved. For example, at U of T Scarborough, Tina Doyle, Director, AccessAbility Services ensured that one of the new residences was built to the highest level of accessibility, well beyond the Ontario Building Code requirements, to create meaningful access. “Now when the Pan Am athletes with disabilities come to use the Pan Am sports facility, entire teams can stay nearby at that residence because the university rents out the units in the summer, and the inventory of accessible rooms has vastly increased.”, said Doyle.

Attracting more people with lived experience of disability will also help U of T achieve something that lies at the heart of its academic mission: diversity of thought. “There is a politic and a perspective to folks with lived experience of disability that really adds to the ways in which we think about innovation,” added Poynton.

Public review of the new design standard by the U of T community will continue until the end of March. Feedback via questionnaire is welcome from students, faculty, librarians, and staff alike. Once this feedback has been reviewed, capital projects will be expected to follow the Standard.

One of the longer-term plans of the AODA Office is to form a tri-campus Accessibility Advisory Committee at U of T*. Any future changes to the technical requirements will require consultation with those that have lived experience of disability.

The University of Toronto community is invited to read the new tri-campus facilities accessibility design standard and share their comments by completing a short questionnaire. In particular, we welcome feedback from members of the university with lived experience of disability.

The questionnaire will be open until March 31, 2023. Take the questionnaire to share your comments.

*If you are a member of the U of T community and would like to be involved in a potential future Tri-Campus Accessibility Advisory Committee, please contact Ben Poynton, AODA Officer.