Us VS. Them: Will Canada become a more inclusive society?


By Sally Abudiab

Earlier this year, Cowbell Brewery – located in the village of Blyth, Ontario – received gold certification in accessibility from the Rick Hansen Foundation. This honour recognizes Cowbell for achieving a 90 per cent rating for designing and building an accessible facility that promotes social inclusion for people with diverse abilities (1). High-contrast sidewalks, braille signs, horizontal grab bars in the washrooms, and spacious hallways are just some of the features that have contributed to the inclusive environment and culture at Cowbell.

Belying its humble location, Cowbell became the first restaurant in Ontario and the first brewery in Canada to have gold certification from the Foundation (2). Unfortunately, Cowbell’s example is an exception rather than the norm. The lack of recognized, accessible public places in Ontario is a legitimate concern causing strife within the province.

Turning the Tide

The Province of Ontario recently enacted broad accessibility legislation with the goal of making Ontario fully accessible by 2025. In The Path to 2025: Ontario’s Accessibility Action Plan, the Ontario Government supported full implementation of five accessibility standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in the following areas: design of public spaces, employment, information and communication, transportation, and customer service (3).

However, while the vision of Ontario is to be fully accessible by 2025, the vision of the Norwegian Government is for the entire country to be universally designed by 2025 (4). This distinction raises a critical question: Should Ontario actively promote universal design and embrace the concept as a path to a more inclusive society, or should the Province continue to enforce accessibility legislation in hopes of removing disability barriers?

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From Trailblazer to Laggard

Ontario was trailblazing accessibility in the early 2000s when it enacted the AODA legislation. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to mandate the public and private sectors to follow a set of accessibility standards (5). The AODA is the legislation upholding the rights of people with disabilities with the goal of creating an inclusive society where everyone can participate to their maximum potential (6).

However, the AODA’s bold vision to make Ontario accessible by 2025 has been met with disappointing reports that change has proceeded “at a glacial pace” and that “Ontario has only progressed 30 per cent towards its target of becoming fully accessible to people with disabilities.” (7)

The Thirty-Thousand Foot View: What is Accessibility and Universal Design?

Accessibility refers to the degree to which the environment, products, and services are accessible to people with disabilities (8). Accessibility is about compliance with minimum guidelines and standards around existing laws and codes (9). Although accessibility is strongly related to Universal Design (UD), the two concepts are not interchangeable. Universal Design is:

“the design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest possible extent, in the most independent and natural manner possible, in the widest possible range of situations, and without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialized solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability.” (10)

The promotion of UD assumes that (a) disability is not a special condition of the few but is ordinary and affects most of us for some part of our lives, and (b) if a design works well for people with disabilities, then it works better for everyone. The electric toothbrush, curb ramps, automated doors, and closed captioning in television sets are some examples of UD.

Taking a Different Tack

In 2001, the World Health Organization issued the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) — a revolutionary framework for describing and measuring health and disability (11). What followed was a significant shift in the way health and disability are understood (12).

The ICF framework normalizes the experience of disability: disability is a universal human experience, not something abnormal.

The ICF also considers the social aspects of disability — including socioeconomic status, race, cultural beliefs — and their interplay with an individual’s health. As a result, the ICF shifted the focus from cause of disability (e.g., medical or biological reasons) to the impact that a person’s health has on function (e.g., moving around independently).

The Universality of Universal Design: Benefits and Considerations

Universal Design is not about planning and designing just for people with disabilities. Other groups who experience discrimination by design include ethnic minorities, women, low-income populations, and the LGBT2SQ+ community; all may experience greater social inclusion from conscientious design. Therefore, UD emphasizes the promotion of wellness for everyone.

Universal Design also emphasizes accident prevention. For example, UD in stair safety could ensure that handrails extend beyond the bottom and top of the stairway for added stability when taking the first and last steps. One of the most obvious health issues that can be addressed by UD is accident prevention because, at its core, UD focuses on design for function. Despite the obvious physical and social benefits of UD, there are barriers that limit its worldwide adoption.

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In low- and middle-income countries, a key barrier to UD is the perception that it is idealistic, expensive, or that it imposes Western values (13). Additionally, refugee camps and informal settlements are two examples where the lack of even basic infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to consider UD (14). Lastly, the high rates of disabling diseases like depression continue to be issues that are not affected by UD initiatives in infrastructure. Many priority health and wellness concerns remain to be addressed including infection control, access to healthy food, sanitation, air and water quality, and the promotion of active living.

While the Ontario Government’s plan for an accessible province is an appreciable start to building a more inclusive society, a UD plan and goal that actively creates an inclusively built environment would be admirable. The Ontario Government must view UD as a long-term, progressive solution to the growing concern of exclusion due to disability. Universal Design may be the best option, supporting equity and equality by considering the diversity of human conditions, sizes, and abilities.


Featured illustration by Naomi Robson for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Abudiab, S. Us VS. Them: Will Canada become a more inclusive society? rehabINK. 2019;7. Available from:


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