For the price he paid, Allen Mankewich, a Winnipeg-based public policy analyst, wishes his shower was some gorgeous thing. Instead, he says, “It’s just okay.” This is surprising considering the install cost him $4,000 – enough money, one might imagine, to ensure the features and fixtures would go well beyond the basics, such as, say, the same stainless steel grab bar that’s in every accessible washroom.
Mankewich had little choice but to spend that much. He uses a wheelchair and, four years ago, when he decided on the condo he wanted in a new development, he had to swap out the panned tub for a curb-less shower to make the space accessible. “The developers were willing to work with me on simple things,” he says. “They switched the door swing on the bathroom so I could maneuver my chair more easily. But they considered the shower an upgrade, not a necessity.”
Mankewich’s frustration is understandable. Why aren’t accessible spaces a standard option for home buyers? And why do those spaces often share a similar aesthetic with hospitals? Those stainless-steel grab bars aren’t the only option. But they are everywhere.
The ubiquity of the look is extra galling because it belies the vast, and growing, diversity of people with disabilities in this country. According to Statistics Canada, 6.2 million Canadians over the age of 15 reported having a disability in 2017 (including physical, sensory, cognitive and mental health-related disabilities). That’s 22 per cent of the adult population. In 2012, 3.8 million Canadians had a disability. The upswing is largely reflective of a greying population. The likelihood of needing a walker or wheelchair increases with age, and the number of seniors is expected to grow by 68 per cent over the next 20 years, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
The magnitude of need should be driving designers to create an array of spaces and products. There’s a big economic incentive to do so. According to the Rick Hansen Foundation, by 2030 real spending by Canadians with disabilities will account for 21 per cent of the national consumer market, up from 14 per cent in 2018.
And yet, when Toronto-based designer Gillian Gillies recently bought a ground-floor condo to use as her work studio, she was dismayed by the look of the accessible washroom. That same stainless steel grab bar was there, as well as fluorescent lighting and white walls. “It passed building code,” she says, “but I have never seen anything so dismal. It made me equally sad and mad at the injustice of it all. Why, because you need to use a wheelchair or another accessibility aid, should you have to have so much basic ugliness? We are all getting older. People get sick, people break their legs. Why not give them beauty instead?”
After a renovation, the bathroom still meets building codes. It’s still accessible. But it’s also ooh-la-la pretty. “Accessible spaces tend to be larger,” she says. “If they are all white, they can look too big as well as clinical.” Gillies used patterns – peonies on the walls, a Farrow & Ball bumblebee wallpaper on the ceiling, a herringbone floor to create a sense of intimacy. She added a touch of luxury with a marble vanity, lowered three inches from the standard height to make it easier to reach in a wheelchair.
All the details, down to the smallest, are thought through. “The electronic door opener was custom coloured and the header was concealed within the framing so you don’t have a huge aluminum box protruding into the room,” she says. “The grab bars were custom-coloured matte black so that they would be concealed against the bold floral wallpaper.”
Gillies’s sister was an important part of her motivation for designing the space with such flourish. “She has MS,” Gillies says. “There’s a lot of pride in her not wanting to have these visible aids everywhere.” Part of the exercise was simply to make them look good.
To Thomas Garvey, an industrial design professor at Carleton University, more designs should follow suit. “Accessibility accessories have a lot of potential to be features of a space,” he says. “Think about eye glasses and hearing aids. Both correct physical limitations. But eye glasses have a fashion element to them. They are often used style statements. People want to wear them.”
Mankewich points out that’s all well and good, but it’s not reasonable to expect everyone who needs an accessible home to invest in bespoke fixtures. “Poverty rates are higher for people with disabilities,” he says.
One way to drive down both the price and improve the design of accessible spaces is to incorporate the barrier-free features from the outset, to make them a standard requirement in our homes (and offices and parks and elsewhere). Lorene Casiez, a nurse turned accessible design lead at Human Space, the social impact subsidiary at Quadrangle Architects, recently worked on a new condo in Pickering, Ont., called Axess. Every unit is barrier-free. “It’s also designed for cognitive and visual impairments,” Casiez says. “We were able to implement a lot of things we learned through co-design seminars, working with people with disabilities. Walls and doors are high-contrast, so they are easier to see.”
In renderings of Axess it appears to be ripped from a design magazine – warm and woodsy, Scandinavian-inspired clean lines. Yet, the construction budget is only one-per-cent higher than a typical, inaccessible building.
“The difference is integration,” says Jesse Klimitz, director of Human Space. “When you start with universal design as a given, not an add on, you can do something really beautiful. Beautiful because it looks more stylish, but moreover because it promotes equity and wellness. Because that’s what this is about. Allowing people to live their best lives. Who can’t relate to that?”