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A man wearing a protective face mask wheels his wheelchair in downtown Vancouver on March 18, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Rick Hansen is an advocate for people with disabilities and the founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation.

With COVID-19 effectively pressing pause on our lives for more than a year, many Canadians have been given an opportunity to slow down and reflect. For me, it’s meant looking back on how far we’ve come in creating a more equitable and accessible world for people with disabilities.

Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have all passed accessibility legislation to protect the rights and guarantee the inclusion of people with disabilities in the public and private sectors. And just this month, British Columbia did too. In 2019, Canada introduced federal accessibility legislation, and Monday marks the two-year anniversary of Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, receiving royal assent. These are all historic milestones to celebrate.

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Yet the pandemic has also reinforced the harsh reality that people with disabilities continue to be overlooked. These individuals have slipped between the cracks despite being disproportionately affected – both economically and socially – by the pandemic. There is much more work to be done.

Currently, 15 per cent of the global population lives with a disability – the largest “minority group” in the world. Because of age-related disabilities, or even temporary disabilities, it’s also the only minority group of which everyone will likely be a member some day. That means that by 2050, of the 6.25 billion people predicted to live in cities alone, roughly 940 million will be people with disabilities.

The individual and collective actions we take today will create fundamental change tomorrow. Post-pandemic recovery presents an opportunity to accelerate our journey toward accessibility. As with previous economic downturns, governments around the world are set to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure development to reignite national economies. If we are to step up to the challenge of “building back better,” it is even more critical for municipalities to invest in new ways to improve accessibility.

Globally, a number of cities are already demonstrating their leadership by embedding inclusionary access policies into their political frameworks. Take Gothenburg, Sweden, the 2014 winner of the European Commission’s Access City Award. The city’s commitment to inclusion meant it conducted a comprehensive and transparent survey of all its public buildings and spaces to accurately assess and address their accessibility.

The private sector is getting involved, too. A Canadian-developed mobile app called AccessNow uses a crowdsourcing model to compile personal ratings, insights and observed accessibility features of businesses and experiences. Using an interactive map, the app has collected consumer ratings of more than 26,000 locations in 30-plus countries around the world.

In honour of National AccessAbility Week earlier this month, Surrey, B.C., became the first municipality in Canada to commit to building all future civic facilities to the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) gold level. That means all new buildings must adhere to a certain standard of accessibility for those with mobility, hearing, vision or other challenges. To date, more than 1,350 sites across Canada have been rated through the RHFAC program.

While some cities around the world are putting accessibility at the top of their infrastructure agendas, many others are struggling. Without a global standard or common metrics, we are left with a fragmented approach to accessibility. Building accessible cities around the world calls for innovation and collaboration. It requires the design and development industries to get it right the first time.

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Already we can see there is a desire for standardized systems at the global level. The Sunflower Lanyard program, which was piloted by London’s Gatwick Airport in 2016, has since been adopted by airports all over the world. The program allows passengers with invisible disabilities to travel independently while discreetly indicating they may require additional support or a little extra time by simply wearing a special lanyard with a sunflower.

While we have championed accessibility, we need to move beyond disparate standards. Canada can be a model, but the onus can’t be placed solely on the disability community. The expertise and responsibility to invest in inclusive spaces lies with all of us. The public and private sectors must work with all levels of government for a harmonized approach to tackling the barriers that people with disabilities face. Now is the time for our country to show the rest of the world what it means to leave nobody behind.

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