Improving Accessibility Post COVID-19

By Zahin Chowdhury

Culture Shock!

Living in my one bedroom condo in the heart of Toronto’s old town became a lot less enchanting once the pandemic hit. Our infatuation of living in the bursting-with-life downtown Toronto neighbourhood, quickly gave way to the lived realities of cramped spaces. Constantly shrinking spaces taken over by the clutter of human cohabitation, the lack of parking, inadequate storage, and exceptionally high rent quickly became a roadblock to our socially-isolating comfort and enjoyment. In ways, adjusting to a pandemic was like responding to culture shock.

The creatives within us were busy creating makeshift workspaces in the kitchen counters, couches and bedrooms. We had our family bring us groceries in their trunk since our regular shops did not offer delivery services near our condo. Months passed, more services emerged, most businesses started adapting, building managements became exponentially informative about cleaning and maintenance in high touch points like doors, elevators, and garbage chutes. 

Regardless, we craved the bigger space and being closer to family, so we packed our bags and flew to Edmonton to nest with my parents. My father, who has been on long-term disability since suffering a stroke five years ago, had already shifted to his new normal. Most of his treatments, counselling, and classes were available virtually. He was enjoying a more comfortable way of accessing care as a byproduct of the pandemic! 

Bowling, not alone

This got me thinking and researching. People with disabilities have been visualizing this future for some time now, they have been asking for more accessible design and accommodations, yet many changes await wider adoption. According to Statistics Canada, 22% of Canadians live with a disability, and their employment prospects only dimmed as the severity of their disability grew, which is illustrated by the fact that over three quarters (76%) of the major working population (18-64 years) with mild disabilities is employed versus just under a third (31%) of the workforce with severe disabilities. It is even more glaring to note that people with severe disabilities (28%) were more likely to be living in poverty than their counterparts without disabilities (10%) or with milder disabilities (14%). The pandemic should not only allow us to see the barriers people with disabilities still have to live with, but also serve as an opportunity for us to reconsider how we design experiences, products and services for them, and reflect such awareness in our daily personal and professional interactions with them.

What about Doors? 

It may be common for us to look at push button doors, and ramps and think we have an inclusive enough space for people with disabilities. However, pushing buttons and holding doors have finally become a barrier for able-bodied people in terms of being high touch points for contamination these days. An advocate for disability rights, David Onley sees the pandemic as an opportunity to plan and design an “improved and accessible normal” benefitting all Canadians. According to Onley, “we have the technology” and “touchless sensors or layouts that remove the need for a physical door in the first place, are so simple, yet so empowering.” It is also valuable to think beyond doors for when it comes to accessibility issues during the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, I have spent countless hours anxiously accessing new information on outbreaks, restrictions and new guidelines. A study by John Hopkins mentions the barriers faced in communication, as “getting information can be more difficult for people with vision, hearing, and even cognitive disabilities, as popular news sources may not be accessible especially when information is changing quickly.” The simple act of accessing information and mental health resources during stressful times may still be a privilege for people with disabilities. 

A mixed race deaf and dumb couple using sign language for communication at home sit on a sofa,

Learning from Personal Experiences

As our focus moves to creating reliable, efficient workspaces from our kitchen tables, we need to add features for people with disabilities who can gain comparable comforts and experiences in their work and lives. The key to learning best practices lies within “learning from employees with disabilities.” It is worthwhile to consider “captioning, sign language, and audio description capabilities” in video conferences, social media posts, and mental health resources. 

Labelled by Guardian Life as an “untapped workforce,” people with disabilities bring new perspectives and much-needed diversity to teams. Their article mentions employees with disabilities report greater loyalty to their employer, and are twice as likely to stay with an employer making adequate accommodation (10 years) compared to those who do not feel supported. Furthermore, hiring people with disabilities on your team not only aids the organization in accessing a larger customer base, but “companies are twice as likely to have higher shareholder returns.” This even sounds like a similar argument for building the business case for any kind of diversity.  

Blue square set of disability icons. Disabled icon set. Mental, physical, sensory, intellectual disability icons.

There is no one-size-fits-all for designing more accessible experiences for those with impairments, but familiarizing your company/team with the Accessible Canada Act can definitely be a starting point. Marco Pasqua in writing for Rick Hansen foundation, provides valuable insight on company wide accessibility considerations. Being on a wheelchair, Pasqua is able to share learnings from lived experiences and provide accessibility design improvements, some of which I have listed below as guidelines: 

Recruitment process

Ensuring applications are accessible for screen readers and company websites and social media have captions or ASL translation. Providing adequate information on the interview process will be beneficial for people who are blind, deaf, have invisible disabilities such as anxiety, ADHD or autism. 

Unintended barriers and hygiene practices 

While using plexiglass when transacting or communicating becomes the new norm, it may be difficult for many people to understand (e.g. hear) with an additional barrier. It is best to encourage staff to speak slowly, or have a notepad to write on. Lowered counters and clear space under the desk accommodates wheelchairs. Placing hand sanitizers, soap dispensers and paper towels within reach for those using wheelchairs in also recommended. 

Becoming a certified professional 

Having someone in house with an accessibility certification like the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification or RHFAC (offered in person and online) to run by ideas, materials, and renovations, can save future costs for the organization while also bringing in more customers. 

Like Pasqua, Dr. Linda Desksen, a Sociology professor at Vancouver island University, learns from facing multiple barriers across campus. Desken’s strategies include all groups and administrations. They have an accessible wayfind map that identifies accessibility features across campus, with pop-up photos of accessible entrances and interior photos of accessible washrooms.

Pasqua and Desken’s research and strategies shed light on having more meaningful conversations, and implementing careful systemic changes from learned experiences.

Three disabled people looking at the sunset – idea of healing and hope.

A Window of Opportunity?

When my family and I moved to Canada from Bangladesh over a decade ago, a lot of uncertainties unfolded around us that we were able to adjust to. As we continue to find ways to accommodate an uncertain new normal (Luciara Nardon likens the uncanny similarities of the new normal with immigration), newcomers with disabilities, might be facing multiple barriers in accessing information, services, and in their everyday lives. Going forward, it will be even more important to make small systemic changes towards greater accessibility for those with disabilities. 

Growing up across different continents, I have become passionate about different cultures, languages, and social issues. As we go through a pandemic and start building our next normal, I believe there is a window of opportunity to think of creative ways to foster social inclusion. At a time when we are solely dependent on accessing everything digitally, being proactive about creating inclusive environments becomes critical.  

Zahin Chowdhury is a Research Associate at Openly.

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