Is the place accessible? Whether choosing a new doctor or planning a romantic dinner with your date, this question comes up time and time again for people with disabilities. The issue of access is central to furthering the ability of people with disabilities to live independently and be fully included as members of their communities. It seems, however, that despite the critical importance of accessibility, people with disabilities, professionals and businesses wanting to do the right thing often don’t know where to find practical information on the accessibility features and standards that make spaces more welcoming.

As many Access Guide Canada (AGC) users and regular readers of this column know, the Canadian Abilities Foundation has been striving to make access information available to people with disabilities.

When we started working on AGC, we expected that people with disabilities would recognize the value of the project and support us with their volunteer time – which they have, using the assessment forms we’ve developed to check places in their communities for accessibility. But what we didn’t anticipate was just how many people are searching for a practical accessibility assessment tool for other reasons. We have been contacted by individuals across the country, from those who want to assess access in their homes, to teachers in the fields of therapeutic recreation, occupational therapy and design. Our assessment forms have been just the tools they needed.

Just how did our Access Guide Canada assessment forms come into existence?

When we first talked to Canadians with disabilities about the kinds of information they wanted about their home communities, they told us they wanted more than just listings of disability-specific services and events. They wanted a way to find out which businesses and services such as restaurants, theatres and shops were accessible, and in which ways they were accessible.

Our challenge then was to define accessibility. As we all know, accommodation needs vary from person to person. Someone with a lightweight manual chair may be able to access a washroom that would be off limits to a person using a large power chair. A person who is Deaf may have no problem climbing five steps to get into a movie theatre, but if the show is not closed-captioned, it is not accessible to her.

We looked again to people with disabilities, the experts in accessibility. We investigated how various organizations and volunteer groups were taking on the task of assessing accessibility. We asked a number of these groups if they would be willing to share their resources, and the answer was a resounding yes.

What we found from looking at a cross-section of access guides was that methods were as varied as those involved. Some organizations simply printed wheelchair symbols next to names of restaurants, while others offered detailed, multiple-page audits covering all facets of a building’s accessibility.

From this, we set out to design forms that would bring together the best of all approaches. Also, recognizing that these forms would be filled out by volunteers, we had to ensure that they allowed for enough detail while keeping the number of questions to a reasonable limit.

The end result was forms that outline accessibility features in a number of settings, from tourist attractions to places of worship. For the most part, we used CSA standards widely accepted by people with disabilities. We also included extra features not found in the standards, such as Braille menus, and call buttons to request assistance. To ensure that all important information was included, we created a place on the forms to add comments such as poor snow removal or how to find an out-of-the-way accessible washroom.

It has been a long road from concept to interactive website, but the hard work has paid off. These assessment forms are now used every day to report on or teach about accessibility. Access Guide Canada, our online database directing you to accessible locations across Canada, continues to grow. How will you use Access Guide Canada?

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