Property hunters with disabilities facing access crisis

Americas, October 8 2011

Toronto: Anecdotally, it was thought to be one of the only wheelchair accessible units available in Toronto, although there’s no way to know for sure. doesn’t have a search option for that.

Located near downtown in the trendy Distillery District, the two-bedroom, two-bedroom unit featured roll-up counters in the kitchen and bathrooms, a curbless shower in the master bath, pocket doors throughout, minimized thresholds and an automatic front door with remote.

The suite was on the market more than 20 days. A handful of buyers with disabilities viewed the property, said realtor John MacEwen, but the $410,000 asking price was a deal breaker.

The couple that eventually purchased the property will be renovating it into a traditional, for lack of a better word, space. And that means one less accessible condo property in a market that’s starving for them.

A lack of inventory is just one of the problems that advocates say is creating a crisis for property hunters with physical disabilities.

New provincial legislation, which is part of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, is supposed to make things easier, but those in the community say developers are shockingly ignorant about the looming changes.

“Generally, the industry — contractors, designers, architects — is very unaware of what’s coming,” said Frances Jewett, a business development manager with a group called AccessAbility Advantage.

The Building, Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) has hired AccessAbility Advantage to put together a training program for the industry. The first phase will begin this fall.

In the meantime, people like Tim McCallum, a 31-year-old quadriplegic who spent six months trying to find housing, will continue to struggle.

“It shouldn’t be so hard for us, considering we have so many other challenges to face in the world,” said McCallum. “Helpless is the word that comes to mind. I’m disappointed that the system isn’t able to help people with disabilities. I’m frustrated that there doesn’t’ seem to be anything doing done about it.”

McCallum, a singer and motivational speaker living in Toronto on a work visa from Australia, visited 150 different properties that boasted to be disability friendly.

Of those, the vast majority were merely located in buildings with an automatic door. A handful had wide doors and low light switches. None had the roll-in shower McCallum required.

McCallum eventually found a place by sheer luck. Someone at the Canadian Paraplegic Association happened to hear about an owner of a midtown apartment suite who just happened to put in a curbless shower, which just fit the wheelchair. McCallum had to make other concessions; there was very little room to transfer in and out of his chair for bed, and there were no push buttons at the front door. But in the Toronto market, it was a gem.

Sandra Carpenter, executive director of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto, said one of the biggest barriers is cost. The majority of those who make use of her organization are on a limited income.

“If money’s not a problem, you can renovate a house,” she said. “In Toronto, it’s hard for people even without disabilities to find affordable housing. When you add the accessibility piece on top of it, you have a real problem.”

And when it comes to renovations, those aren’t always possible, especially in a condo. That’s one of the areas the new legislation is aiming to fix.

In 2001, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act came into effect. Essentially what that legislation did was make publicly funded entities — school boards, universities, municipalities, hospitals, etc. — disability friendly.

Accessibility planning as well as some barrier removal was mandated and municipalities were made to create advisory panels.

But what the act didn’t do was have an impact on the places where people spend most of their lives, explains Diane Morrell, who is the regional services coordinator at Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario  and also the chair of the Sault St. Marie committee.

“I’m talking about the grocery store. We all go to restaurants. The little places around the corner we shop and receive services,” she said. “The ODA covers the public sector. The new legislation covers everybody else.”

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was created in 2005. At its core, the goal of the AODA is to make the entire province accessible by 2025. This is happening through various phases and initiatives that are currently being rolled out.

As far as the development industry is concerned, the big change will come with the new built environment standards act, which will likely be rolled out sometime late next year or in 2013. The industry is not prepared.

Under current regulations, about 10 per cent of a highrise building must be considered “barrier free,” meaning no stairs, roomier bathrooms and bigger doorways. The new legislation is expected to widely expand those requirements.

The program will be broken into different streams depending on the individual’s area. For contractors: how to understand a client’s needs and how to design for those needs. For others: common design solutions that comply with the new standards and provide a high level of accessibility.

This means wider doors, push-button access and barrier-free entrances, among other things, for the entire building, and on a single-unit level, simple design solutions that will make it easier to convert a suite into a wheelchair accessible unit, said Susan Ruptash, who also works with the organization.

“The standard also requires that most suites have adaptable features to make it easy and less expensive to modify to meet someone’s specific needs. Some of these features include the strategic placement of non-structural walls so bedrooms and bathrooms can be easily enlarged in the future, as well as rough-in plumbing to permit easier installation of a larger roll-in or walk-in shower,” said Ruptash.

George Carras, president of RealNet Canada Inc., an information resource for the building industry and land development organizations, said in the 15 years his organization has been tracking the market, this is the first time he’s been asked about the accessibility issue.

“It’s nothing that I would say is very visible in many of the development programs right now. They all comply to what’s required, and I know that some of them, just anecdotally, will work with purchasers to customize units as they can,” he said.

Considering the aging population and looming legislative changes, Carras predicts forward-thinking builders will likely take notice of the untapped market.

“Developers are very good at responding to market demand. . . . I think if there were opportunities for that in large scale, I think you would absolutely see developers respond to that in very creative ways.”


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