Access to services and facilities in the Canadian Parks Service

Robert Fern of The Canadian Parks Service (CPS) in his presentation at the CIB Seminar in Budapest, 1991, describes the Canadian Parks Service's implementation of accessibility measures for disabled persons in the Canadian National Parks. The CPS Strategy and Action Plan emphasizes the need for persons who have hearing, visual and mobility impairments to have equal and, where possible, integrated access to park and site themes, recreational opportunities and essential services. Internet publication URL:


Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building
Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991

Robert Fern, The Canadian Parks Service, Canada


Seminar Contents



The Canadian Parks Service (CPS) administers one of the largest park systems in the world. This park system consists of 34 national parks, over 80 major national historic sites, 9 historic canals and 2 marine parks. Five new parks should be added to the system within the next four years.

It is no easy task to make a park system which includes varied natural landscapes and historic structures accessible to people who have physical, sensory and mental disabilities. Ideally, all areas and programs should be accessible to all people.

The Canadian Parks Service has recently made "accessibility" a high priority with the result that many important changes have taken place. However, it is recognized that total accessibility cannot be accomplished because of the paramount need to preserve heritage values and natural landscapes as well as for financial reasons. Therefore, alternatives acceptable to persons who have disabilities and to those in the park system (and others who support it) need to be found and implemented.

This paper will highlight some of these important changes, discuss how and why they are taking place and will focus on processes and activities that worked in the Canadian context. It must be emphasized, however, that circumstances vary from country to country and what works in one may not work in another. Hopefully, the experience gained in Canada will have some application in other jurisdictions.


CPS began working on access projects in the mid-1970s (about four years before acceptable standards were approved). During this time special measures were taken because of the need to protect the systems' heritage values. Trial and error prevailed: it was a learning experience. Unfortunately, this anachronism resulted in some projects not conforming to the new standards once they were approved.

Only limited access was achieved when building codes were amended to include accessibility standards. This was due primarily to the following factors:

  • access standards were new and did not include directions on application which caused some confusion,
  • it was difficult to apply these standards to heritage buildings and natural landscapes,
  • research to support certain standards (i.e., for beaches, wharfs, docks, etc.) had not been completed,
  • comprehensive consultations with agencies that represent disabled persons, as well as with disabled individuals, did not take place in the development of the standards or during design and construction phases of projects,
  • the needs of persons with sensory disabilities (i.e., visual and hearing) were not considered.

By the mid-1980s, as designers and architects became more familiar with the standards and the needs of mobility impaired persons more buildings and facilities were made accessible.

However, access to historic buildings still had to be defined and priorities set. Also, other problems such as finance and issues relating to design had to be overcome. To do this, the Canadian Parks Service developed and is currently implementing "A Strategy and Action Plan for Access for Disabled Persons". Many areas are covered in this strategy. These include:

  • the setting of priorities and defining what access means to CPS,
  • cooperation with agencies that represent disabled persons,
  • staff training,
  • the re-adjustment of capital funds,
  • the integration of access into existing planning processes,
  • examining the roles and responsibilities of volunteers and cooperating associations,
  • defining how access to historic structures can be achieved.

The Strategy emphasizes the need for persons who have hearing, visual and mobility impairments to have equal and, where possible, integrated access to park and site themes, recreational opportunities and essential services.

During the implementation of the Strategy, it was realized that many park visitors, other than those who have disabilities, have benefited directly from the new accessibility standards (i.e., a tactile exhibit for visually impaired persons increases the understanding and enjoyment of the exhibit for everyone; a captioned video for persons with hearing impairments benefits seniors and persons who speak a language other than that used in the video; and a trail made for mobility impaired persons benefits families who have children in strollers, persons with heart ailments and seniors.)

The most important element of the access program has been the cooperative efforts between CPS and the agencies that represent disabled persons. These agencies work with CPS in a number of areas including the development of training programs and the formulation of design solutions. Without this interaction the program would not be so successful.

The most beneficial effect of this cooperation has been how these agencies have "humanized" the access issue for park service employees. When representatives of the agencies have been brought together with parks service employees, the parks staff have gained an opportunity to understand the issue first-hand, while the persons with disabilities have developed a better understanding of the mandate of the parks service. This is an on-going and valuable process. It is important to note that agency representatives are well-versed with the situation before they meet with CPS employees. This allows both parties to discuss the issues with a common understanding. It is also advantageous to include a social element in such gatherings - to encourage interchange in a more relaxed atmosphere (which also promotes better understanding).

Before such a meeting took place, many parks service staff felt that persons with disabilities would not understand or appreciate the conservation mandate of CPS and that they would make unreasonable developmental demands (i.e., pave every trail to the top of every mountain). These misconceptions were based on a lack of awareness and understanding of the needs and expectations of disabled persons. It was soon evident that they, like everyone else, want to see Canada's major heritage areas preserved and do not want any more than the average Canadian.

The question that we, who work in the access area, must ask ourselves is why do people like those of the park service have these pre-conceived ideas? There are probably two major reasons. One is that people without disabilities may have a fear of disabilities themselves. They are therefore nervous with the issue which can sometimes lead to a general lack of understanding about it. The second is that some employees may feel threatened by something they do not understand and may believe that if access is provided, it will conflict with their agency's (and their own) ideals.

For CPS the interaction has been meaningful. CPS considers the agencies that represent disabled persons with which it works as important partners. CPS management appreciates, and encourages further interaction between the park service and these partner agencies.

It is also important to understand, though, that even when management supports the access issue, some employees may still feel "threatened" (i.e., in the case of CPS, some exhibit designers and other individuals working for the protection of heritage buildings). To overcome this, one can try the same approach of bringing the two sides together - although some persons may still remain unconvinced. At CPS, we found it advantageous to find a professional "ally" (i.e., someone who understands and deals with persons who feel threatened) to bring the access issue to the attention of his/her peers. Once done, the two groups, along with the "ally", were brought together to discuss the issue. It is important to approach some professionals in this way, as they see one of their peers supporting an issue that is a threat to them. This approach and a stroke of good fortune (of finding the right "ally") worked well for CPS - especially when the issue was brought to the attention of the designers.

It is also important to find out why a particular group feels threatened and to deal with their feelings. Once again, using the exhibit designers as an example, we found that many feared that their creativity would be threatened if they designed everything to be accessible (i.e., all print would have to be in black and white, in a certain size and in a certain style, etc.) When the myths were successfully dealt with (i.e., that everything does not have to be in black and white, etc.) the exhibit designers became major supporters of the issue and see it as a way to improve their work for the benefit of everyone.

CPS has now held two successful media and design workshop on access and will be holding an expanded workshop in the future. Designers are currently working on a number of pilot projects and the results will shape the way information is given to the visiting public in the future.

Many building designers and architects also feel threatened by the access issue - a major reason being that there are many "ugly ramps" around to reinforce their misconceptions. Very few appear to have a good understanding of the issue; and unfortunately, at this time, only one school of architecture in Canada offers a course on the subject (some include it in other limited areas). The result is that new architects have little understanding of associated issues when they leave school (though schools of architecture would argue the point).

Good examples of accessible architecture should also be promoted to heighten awareness of the issue and to give it a more positive image. Some Canadian provinces (i.e., Ontario and British Columbia) give annual awards to architects who have produced good, accessible designs for buildings. More such programs are needed so that architects will not only have poor examples to draw upon when the access issue is discussed.

In CPS, architects are now consulting with representatives of agencies that represent people with disabilities. This is proving to be a growing process for both - the architects because they are becoming more familiar with access issues and the representatives because they are becoming familiar with concerns for building design.

It must be realized that not all agencies possess the expertise in every area that an organization such as CPS requires. They, too, require sensitivity in the areas requiring assistance. To help them obtain this expertise, CPS established agreements with three of the leading agencies in Canada. There is a small financial arrangement associated with these agreements.


CPS has accomplished a great deal in the area of access in a very short period of time (although CPS is the first to admit that there is more to do). CPS now has an access plan for each national park and historic site (118 plans) and is nearing the completion of year 1 for the implementation of those plans. Improvements made during the year will benefit all three major physical and sensory disability groups (i.e., captioning of all major videos and the purchase of audio-listening devices for each park and site; the development and use of tactile exhibits and signs; the construction of more accessible trails and picnic and camping areas; the re-design and retrofitting of buildings, theaters, washrooms, etc.).

The future

Things are looking good. Within three years, all major facilities, programs, recreational opportunities and services will be accessible to all persons. All staff will have received some degree of sensitivity training. Where direct access cannot be provided, alternative methods will be offered. The result will be improved services for everyone - not just persons with disabilities.


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