Accessibility Beyond Design
Navigating Regina's Victoria Park using BlindSquare. Credit: CNIB

When it comes to public space, we can reframe our understanding of disability, said Dr. Ron Buliung, Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto and parent of a child with a physical disability.

Rather than thinking of disability in anatomical terms, we can think about how “it's actually the environment that is disabling,” he said. “It’s about how spaces “[don't] work in the presence of an impairment.”

Parks are no exception, with city parks across the country in varied states of accessibility.

Cities we surveyed are aware of the need to improve, with four in five reporting increasing demand for universally accessible designs, although only 44% have an accessibility strategy that includes objectives for parks.

As cities work toward the necessary task of upgrading design, there are a broader range of supportive programs and projects that can complement design interventions, or help reduce barriers in the meantime.

Inclusive playgrounds about more than equipment

Dr. Buliung is working on research, led by colleague Dr. Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, to evaluate inclusive playgrounds across the country funded through the Jumpstart Inclusive Play Project. Seven have been built so far, including in Surrey, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. The goal is to identify successes and recommendations for improvement.

While the research is still in progress, interviews with families who use the playgrounds, as well as rehabilitation and education professionals, suggest that the sites are having important benefits.

The playgrounds enable sibling play between differently abled children, and allow families to stay together rather than splitting up between different parks. Play across ability is also helping to educate children about disability from a young age, which the research team hopes will instill an inclusive outlook toward disability as they grow up.

But the research also suggests areas for improvement—and not all relate to the physical environment.

An emerging finding is the need for programming at these playgrounds.

“It’s not just a matter of having physically accessible playground equipment, because a child may still require emotional and social support in initiating play with others,” Dr. Arbour-Nicitopolous said. “We need to think about how to fully engage children together,” she said, suggesting that a staff playground leader is one option—otherwise it falls on parents to take this role on.

On-site educational opportunities could also be beneficial. For parents, it would help to alleviate the need to explain their child’s disability to curious park users. For children, learning about the different types of play equipment could help them to better share the space with others whose abilities differ from their own.

Child wears noise-cancelling headphones at festival in Surrey Civic Plaza. Credit: Canucks Autism Network
Child wears noise-cancelling headphones at festival in Surrey Civic Plaza. Credit: Canucks Autism Network
Considering invisible disabilities

A partnership between the City of Surrey, the Vancouver Park Board, and the non-profit Canucks Autism Network (CAN) is making parks more inclusive for people with autism and other invisible disabilities.

Hallie Mitchell, Manager of Training and Community Engagement at CAN, said, “one of the most common things that people tell us is that they've gone to an event or program at a park or plaza and they have actually been asked to leave, or told that it wasn't a good fit for them.”

CAN has provided in-person and online training to parks and rec staff in Vancouver and Surrey to equip them with the knowledge and skills to better understand, support, and welcome autistic park users.

A key point emphasized in the training is the importance of predictability, said Mitchell. “Outdoor spaces are sometimes unpredictable. We don't know who will be accessing them, what might be happening in that space at that time, what the weather will be … there might not be a lot of information about how to navigate through that space.”

Thorough information on parks websites, detailed maps or signage on-site, and visual supports that illustrate the social rules of a public space can all help to make spaces more legible and inviting.

In addition to training, CAN also works with municipalities to provide sensory-friendly amenities at festivals and gatherings in parks and public spaces. For people who experience their sensory environment intensely, crowding, loud noises, and scents at events can easily become overstimulating.

Sensory Friendly Spaces—tents equipped with features like comfortable seating, fidget/sensory toys, books, games, and noise-cancelling headphones—provide a place to escape and relax should attendees become overwhelmed. Since first piloting a Sensory Friendly Space at an event with the City of Surrey in 2018, CAN has brought them to various outdoor events in Vancouver and Surrey.

Sensory Friendly Space at Vanier Park, Vancouver. Credit: Canucks Autism Network
Sensory Friendly Space at Vanier Park, Vancouver. Credit: Canucks Autism Network
Turning to tech

Through the use of an app called Blindsquare, Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) has made two parks in Regina accessible to people with vision loss.

After learning that some community members were avoiding Victoria Park and City Square Plaza due to disorienting features including a spoke-like path design, CNIB wanted to find a solution to make these parks accessible and safe to navigate, said CNIB Saskatchewan’s Executive Director, Christall Beaudry.

People can use the app for free and navigate the park using audio cues based on GPS coordinates transmitted from their phone to nearby beacons installed in the park.

Navigating parks together

While the support of non-profit organizations and cities is important, what can get lost in the conversation, Dr. Buliung noted, is recognition of the creativity and agency of people with disabilities in navigating spaces that may not be perfectly accessible.

Safari Walking Group, a volunteer-led walking group run by and for people with vision loss or blindness, is doing just that, through weekly walks that explore different parks and trails in Toronto.

“When you get to places that are sometimes hard to navigate, like parks, it's good to have other people,” said one of the group’s founders, Craig Nicol. The group relies on “sharing abilities,” as members have varying levels of visual acuity, and all routes are pre-tested by Nicol and his guide dog.

By switching up walk locations each week so that walkers are encouraged to explore new neighbourhoods on public transit, “it's helped teach people more about the city and give them more confidence,” Nicol said.

Whether through design interventions or community-led programming, making parks accessible is important not only to ensure the rights of people with disabilities to participate in their communities, but also because parks are less vibrant when some are excluded, said Dr. Buliung.

“My daughter has something to offer while she's in the park,” he said. “It's not just about what the park has to offer her. Her mind, her experience, her way of being, and her generosity are there as gifts for the other kids as well.”