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Brad McCannell remembers using a beautifully designed wheelchair-accessible washroom in a Vancouver public building. Everything seemed to be in place. But when he went to flush the toilet, McCannell, a quadriplegic who is Vice-President of Access and Inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation, discovered the flushing mechanism was a pedal on the floor.

"What was I supposed to do?" he says with a laugh. "I tried rolling over it with my wheelchair, but that didn't work. I thought, 'Wow, they came so close to universal accessibility and they dropped the ball right at the goal line.' "

It's those small but crucial details that make a big difference when it comes to designing truly accessible spaces. They are what individuals learn to look for in a new course created by the Rick Hansen Foundation. Launched this past fall at Vancouver Community College, the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility CertificationTM (RHFAC) program teaches participants the skills needed to gauge a buildingʼs accessibility and rate it according to a universal scale – akin to LEED certification. Following the course participants are able to take an exam, and conduct field experience to become designated RHFAC Professionals. The college will offer the next course in April.

Rating a building's accessibility doesn't just mean checking to see whether it has a wheelchair ramp and an oversized washroom cubicle. "Most access consideration today is for people using wheelchairs," explains McCannell, a course instructor and a design consultant for more than 25 years. "But we're less than 20 per cent of the population of people with disabilities."

The program is built around the idea of "meaningful access," a holistic approach that looks at all aspects of a site and takes into account a range of disabilities, including visual, and hearing impairment, as well as various mobility issues.

The two-week, 60-hour course begins by exposing participants to challenges posed by different disabilities. Students are sent out onto the VCC campus in small groups. Some are given wheelchairs; others are equipped with goggles and white canes to experience various levels of blindness. Some will better understand hearing loss through simulation. And the able-bodied get an idea of what it's like to have reduced mobility. "We take a tensor bandage and tape up your right knee so you can't flex it," he says. "And we do the same with your left elbow. Then we put you in oven mitts, give you a set of crutches and tell you to go open a door."

Uli Egger, an assessor who successfully completed the first RHFAC course, says the simulations were "mind boggling." He found trying to navigate his way while "blind" especially challenging. "It was very difficult and, frankly, frightening," he recalls. "It really gave me a new appreciation of that disability."

The exercises are meant to force a shift in perspective. "Our goal is to change the way you experience the built environment," McCannell says. "Once you begin seeing barriers, access problems, tripping hazards and just plain omissions, you can't stop seeing them."

From there, the course goes deeply into the principles of Universal Design – a concept in which accessibility for all users is integrated into a building or space – and explores its many applications.

The curriculum, designed using global best practices, is aimed at people with no background in accessibility or the building industry. So far, it has attracted a large number of participants who have disabilities themselves.

"It's a unique opportunity for us to create meaningful employment for people with disabilities," McCannell explains. "Who better than them to understand the core issues of accessibility?"

Egger, who is hearing impaired, has high praise for the course. Since completing the course, he's joined the Foundation's team of 12 assessors and inspected a variety of sites. With a wife who is quadriplegic, it's not surprising that he is a big believer in promoting the idea of Universal Design. "Instead of having separate entrances or facilities for people with disabilities, you design a building so everyone can use it regardless," he says. "It's about inclusivity."

McCannell hopes the concept will be embraced by the industry. It's one of the reasons that the Foundation is preparing a shorter, 30-hour version of the training course for professionals such as architects, planners and facility operators. "We want to change the design culture, to have architects and designers consider accessibility right at the beginning stages," he says. "We want it to be part of the initial design that someone sketches on a napkin."

The Foundation intends to offer its courses across Canada, in partnership with postsecondary institutions. One is already being planned for this spring at Nova Scotia Community College. "Our goal is to create a giant pool of experts, of people who understand Universal Design and the application of it, who understand meaningful access," McCannell says.

They will have their work cut out for them. As Canada's baby boomer population ages, there will be an increasing demand for more accessible environments. "A thousand people turn 65 every day in this country and 245,000 people retire every year," he says. "We have to be ready for them."

The next RHFAC Accessibility Assessor training course will be held April 9-20 at Vancouver Community College. Register on its website


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