Invest in Access

As April wrapped up, so too did the academic year, and I had the honour of being asked by Humber College’s Bachelor of Interior Design program to speak to fourth year students during their thesis show. Issues of inclusivity were dominant themes in the projects on display by the students, and so naturally the conversation tilted in that direction, with students questioning aloud about how to accommodate everyone in a space. I was even asked, fairly directly, whether I think universal design is realistic.

My answer was equally direct: don’t look for absolute answers, but also don’t be discouraged by the lack of one. Instead, realize that interior design is a business, and like any good business person does, watch how markets change.

access, Humber College, universal design
Students at Humber’s interior design program, where Canadian Interiors Editor Peter Sobchak recently spoke about issues of access and inclusion. Photo via Humber College

The Conference Board of Canada, relying heavily on Stats Canada data, put out a new report titled The Business Case to Build Physically Accessible Environments, highlighting that the number of Canadians living with a physical disability that impairs their mobility, vision, or hearing will rise from 2.9 million to 3.6 million over the next 13 years, nearly double the pace of the population as a whole. Today, one in seven Canadian adults identifies as having some form of disability, and due to our large and aging Baby Boomer population (there are now more Canadians aged 65 and older than 15 and under), that number is expected to increase to one in five within the next 20 years, affecting up to nine million people.

Simply put, in the new millennium it’s normal to have some form of disability. And this is what I tried to impress on these students, because as a community of people with disabilities continues to grow and become more active, there is a greater need for the built environment to meet the real needs of the consumer. And the payback is enormous. Real spending by this group will rise from 14 to 21 per cent of the total consumer market, and improvements to workplace access would allow 550,000 Canadians with disabilities to work more, increasing GDP by $16.8 billion by 2030.

Brad McCannell, vice president at the Rick Hansen Foundation, put it perfectly. “We need to ask ourselves, if there was $17 billion worth of gold in the ground, would you just leave it there, or would you do everything you could to get access to it and maximize the return on investment?” And that is what I told the Humber students to think of a building as: an investment, specifically, an investment in people. Accessibility is more than just a legal standard or specification. It involves fostering a sense of inclusion so all people, not just those with disabilities, can flourish.