On Universal Design: How Businesses Can Benefit From Boosting Accessibility

For people with mobility issues or cognitive disabilities, getting around can be a problem. Especially in cities where dense populations and ageing infrastructure can compound the problems of able-bodied people ignoring the needs of many.

On Thursday, experts in accessibility and universal design came together at the DMZ for a panel discussion on these issues, what’s being done, and where companies and the public still have room for improvement.

The panelists included AccessNow founder Maayan Ziv, Magnusmode founder Nadia Hamilton, and Jon Loewen, an architectural designer at Perkins+Will. Brad Ross, the Executive Director of External Communications at the TTC was scheduled to appear, but canceled at the last minute.

All of the panelists agreed that we’ve experienced progress, but there’s still a long way to go. “More people are becoming more aware that people are different, and need different support to be fully engaged in the environment,” said Hamilton, whose company helps people with cognitive disabilities by creating flash cards that give simple instructions to aid in everyday tasks, like showering, riding the bus, or buying coffee.

With that awareness and desire to do something about the problem of accessibility comes a pendulum swinging too hard and too fast in the opposite direction. People wanting too much change, rather than making practical accommodations that can make an immediate difference in people’s lives. “Sometimes the great can be the enemy of the good,” said Loewen. “It’s important to realize what changes we can make right now that make a meaningful difference,” he added.

The shift in perception and focus on accessibility issues can come from a place of pure egalitarianism, but all of the panelists agreed that new and old companies have a financial interest in making their products and businesses more accessible. “There’s been a shift in recognizing the power of diversity overall. There’s strength in bringing other perspectives to the table. Whatever the circumstances, there’s been a lot more focus on diversity,” said Ziv.

Ziv backed up these claims by talking about her own experiences. She was born with muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. If she and a group of friends were to go out to dinner, but that restaurant isn’t accessible, the restaurant loses all of their business. Hamilton drove this point home further, “If I’m out with my brother, and he wants KFC, we’re all going to KFC. it’s the business of an entire support network. if it’s not accessible, we’re not going there,” she said.

David C. Onley, Special Advisor on Accessibility to the Minister of Economic Development of Ontario, moderated the panel and shared a similar story about Chris Hansen, an accomplished paralympian. Hansen and some other athlete friends of his went to a restaurant that was advertised as accessible, but after rolling up the ramp, he found himself in front of a flight of stairs. Having his burly friends by his side, they simply lifted him up the stairs, and made their way into the resturaunt. The owner greeted Hansen, and was taken aback by his sour demeanour. Hansen told the owner he really needed to do something about those stairs, or people like himself wouldn’t be able to make in. The restaurant owner, completely unaware of the irony, said, “We just don’t get that many people in here in wheel chairs.”

One of the problems, even among places that can be called accessible, is a lack of respect for the experience they put people through. Ziv shared another personal story about going into a foyer of a building that had been ornately decorated with flowers, and other accoutrement, but because Ziv is a wheelchair, she had to go through back where the garbage comes in and out. Hamilton pointed out, “It’s a new kind of discrimination.”

For companies, the real value in thinking inclusively is bringing more money in, plain and simple. Every panelists had different but credible metrics to demonstrate how universal design and accessibility can increase business. All the remarks were best summarized by another story from Onley. He gave a speech citing all the reasons accessibility can boost business, and someone who Onley described as “one of Canada’s top financial minds,” said, “ I get it, do the right thing and make more money!”

For startups, the issues of accessibility is actually an easier problem to tackle, because they can build accessibility right into their products from the beginning, rather than retrofitting, which is often much harder. The problem startups face is how to actually make something accessible for everybody, but the panelists had solutions. For Ziv, the key for young companies is to talk to people, get as many perspectives as they can and, “stop assuming who your customer is.” That approach, coupled with constant testing all throughout development creates inclusion.

For bigger projects, the idea shouldn’t be to accommodate each individual person, but create as much opportunity for as many people as possible. “We can’t predict how people are going to need or use a space. Human beings are a wonderful and diverse group, so rather than focusing on providing for each specific need, it’s about the giving people the choice and a range of opportunity,” said Loewen.

As the panel winded down, the panelists reiterated their concerns. “The awareness of what accessibility and what it can do for a business still isn’t totally clear to business owners,” said Hamilton, though she and other panelists were quick to point a growing number of exceptions, like car companies becoming involved in manufacturing new, better wheelchairs, or Nike making self-tying shoes that the general public like, but also work incredibly well as an accessible product.

The last few points from the panel were that everybody in a city or a society can benefit from a more accessible world. It may happen as people age and develop their own cognitive disabilities, like alzheimer’s or dementia, or an accident, or any other reason. According to Ziv, able-bodied people often take for granted the perks of the world around them that came from a drive to be more accessible.

“Even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, you’re using accessible features everyday. Overtime you see a curb cut, or the an announcement on the bus for the stop that’s coming up, that’s accessibility. So we should take those ideas further and make everything awesome,” Ziv said.