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March 01, 2023

Moving beyond ramps & automatic door switches to a shift in health consciousness

Moving beyond ramps & automatic door switches to a shift in health consciousness
Mainstream society holds the understanding when it comes to wheelchair accessibility that this is focused on infrastructure of buildings and a notion accessibility that is device-centric. While these are two important aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities and their peers; it is crucial that the understanding and implementation of accessibility and its policies and practices move beyond this, and into attitudinal perceptions and behaviours. These should concern an individual’s health and overall quality of life. How one feels as an individual with a visible disability, through the way they are interacted with by others, and what they can do to feel their strongest and best by exercising, has little to do with a ramp or door switch, but more with the way that businesses are structured and available opportunities for physical literacy.
This article features Jess Silver’s personal story and looks at how her non-profit organization, Flex for Access, was created to shift the paradigm of social consciousness on physical literacy and create mainstream opportunity for adaptive fitness.

5 Fun Facts About Jess:
  •  Jess has loved sports her entire life; basketball, soccer, and tennis, top the list
  • Jess feels that her physical disability empowers her
  • Jess is the Founder and Executive Director of a Non-Profit Organization that is the 1st of its kind focusing its work on both adaptive sport and fitness
  • Jess is a writer who uses the written word to educate and empower new ideas and ways of perceiving accessibility, adversity, and medical terminology
  • Jess understands accessibility as an issue grounded in human spirit and openness, before looking at physical infrastructure
Jess was born with a physical disability known as Cerebral Palsy (CP) but has never felt that she is defined by it. One of her mantras is, “In life you always must be open to taking the back or alternate route to get to where you need to.” She developed the attitude that challenges in our lives enrich the journey, and create the capacity within one to be adaptable, receptive of the new, and creative. Jess has always taken it upon herself to trailblaze new ways of doing things, assume working roles in competitive fields and learn diverse skills.
She was the only one to use a wheelchair to get around her undergraduate university campus of Glendon College; which is the French campus of York University. Jess took to every opportunity to advocate for change for herself and others with varying mobility. She recounts that uses the very small elevator located in one area of the campus of York Hall, which was the campuses main lecture hall, was challenging because of small size and how tight it was with others she used it with, but that it being there and the fact that her power wheelchair could turn on its axis, allowed her to pursue her undergraduate studies. She also believes and is hopeful that her insight paved the way for other students with physical disabilities, as well as their peers and educators. Through her experiences and challenges going to Glendon, she wants planners to think how to make public buildings accessible for all and recognize the challenges small spaces such as elevators can pose to individuals in mobile devices.

Flex for Access’ Mission and Mandate
Jess has been passionate about movement, fitness, physical literacy, and sport all of her life. She founded Flex for Access, being an adaptive athlete for over a decade at the high- performance level. The Non-Profit Organization empowers individuals to be active through engaging in adaptive fitness and sport within mainstream settings. Its mandate is to facilitate opportunities for both adaptive fitness and sport, making it unique because other organizations are predominantly focused on sport. It is also unique because it has a Global Social Media presence with athletes and educators in the field of sport and fitness participating to raise awareness using the hashtag #FlexforAccess in posts on Social Media flexing their bicep or engaged in exercise, or sport.

Why does an understanding of Flex for Access’ work matter to OPPI members, and how does adaptive fitness and sport play into the context of accessibility?
Learning about Flex for Access’ work is important for planners to help them understand the impact of urban planning of infrastructure of gyms and recreational spaces, in addition to others that citizens frequent in terms of accessibility. Furthermore, to help them consider creating inclusive and evolving policies that are open-minded and holistic in the scope of health and wellness, but also to considering individuals with any disability, visible or invisible, as valued, active members of society.

How can planners do their part to better support people with disabilities?
The very first thing that anyone can do to better support individuals with disabilities, is realize that they are human first, just like anyone else. The crucial point to understand is that everyone is different, physically, and emotionally, and has unique ways of learning, processing information, moving, and navigating our society, and may have challenges that could be either visible (physically) or invisible, if they are related to intellectual abilities, or emotional health, for example.
One way to support all, and particularly individuals with disabilities is to ask them where they require assistance and the extent and type of assistance they need. Remember that each person is unique, and thus a specific condition doesn’t affect every person the same way.
Another important consideration to make in supporting individuals with varying types of disabilities, is to make them a part of your review, evaluation, or advisory process. Having a first-person perspective ensures that every aspect is considered fully and in an informed way. This is particularly important related to individuals with disabilities, and as it relates to planning and building of spaces because everyone’s requirements as per their needs are unique, and they can also change over time, so having a lived experience informed perspective and many, in fact, would be important. It’s also important to understand that building codes are standardization practices, but it is important to have lee way in that understanding to account for unique differences in needs which inform design. Some individuals with disabilities are short in stature and some use a combination of wheelchairs which are manually operated, and/ or powered through an electric motor. These varying characteristics are to be accounted for in relation to planning.
What can city planners do to ensure that the built form and public realm are accessible to all, regardless of age, gender, or ability?
Every building needs to be drawn, conceptualized, and built in compliance with accessibility standards in mind as does every policy and practice, according to the stipulations of the Accessibility For Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA).  It is crucial for it not to be seen as an after-thought because one person, or a few people out of so many, need the accommodations, but, rather that accessibility and open-mindedness and adaptability of regulations and ideas, be over-arching at every level of social structure.

Here are some strategies for understanding and implementing Accessibility into the work of planners and other related professionals:
  •  ​The key idea is to adopt an organization and company understanding of accessibility and AODA standards, but one that is flexible and capable of adapting to necessary changes.
  • Hire or consult with individuals who have lived experience with a disability to inform or audit planning and build decisions.
  • Stay informed of standardization policies and procedures and current on trends related to accessibility and accessible innovation by joining conferences and engaging with leaders and stakeholders of the disability community on social media, or podcasts. And remember, asking the right questions, leads to learning which creates improvement, so embrace asking questions!
  • Be proactive not reactive, or don’t think retro-actively.

By building and operating in an environment where infrastructural accessibility is prioritized, a company and its leaders, are including a multitude of individuals and perspectives and allowing for all to be included in all activities of society, increasing ROI for businesses, and overall productivity and satisfaction, of all individuals. It’s time to realize that disability is not something that affects a marginalized percentage of society, but that it can impact everyone through aging, onset of disease or injury or a traumatic event in life, arbitrarily occurring, and everyone can and is, either directly, or indirectly impacted. Therefore, every route to a location, necessitates access, every door opened easily, every step climbed, or navigated barrier free.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Jess Silver

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