Canadian Action on Handicapping Environments

Canada has made considerable progress in developing barrier-free environments, and human rights legislation now contains anti-discriminatory clauses which protect disabled persons, thereby providing opportunities for equal access to shelter, employment, goods and services. Internet publication URL:

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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities
Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Canadian Action on Handicapping Environments

Jean-Remi Champagne, National Research Council Canada


Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB) 


The 1987 United Nations Human Settlements Conference in Vancouver, Canada, focused attention on human rights to shelter, employment, and goods and services without discrimination because of race, religion, color, sex, age or disability. Canada endorsed the United Nations’ anti-discriminatory policy statement. Following this UN Human Rights declaration, positive action was taken by most countries to eliminate discriminatory practices against disabled persons. Canada and many other countries had begun developing accessibility standards even before the UN Conference. By 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, there were many reports of measurable progress. The International Year, however, made it quite evident that the world in general lacked a sensitivity to the many and diverse obstacles in our built environment which are a hindrance to its use. This lack of awareness made it difficult to obtain clear definitions of environment and behavior issues that affect disabled persons. The solution to problems identified is often frustrated by the overlapping responsibilities of multi-tiered government and lack of consumer participation in the decision making process. 

Federal Action


The National Housing Act passed by the Canadian Government, in 1938 , made no provision for disabled persons. Extensive revisions in 1944 , made largely by war veterans still made no provision for disabled persons. It was taken for granted that disabled persons were to be cared for by health authorities and generally institutionalized. In the sixties, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the national housing agency, began developing design guidelines for housing disabled persons. At the same time the National Research Council published a supplement to the National Building Code on building standards for disabled persons. It dealt exclusively with minimum accessibility criteria for mobility impaired persons. It was not until the fourth edition, in 1980, that there was any mention of the safety requirements of visually or hearing impaired persons. Research is currently being carried out to determine more accurately the minimum requirements of hearing impaired and sight impaired persons in life safety situations.

It is only in the last decade that disabled persons have seriously considered living independently and that de-institutionalization is becoming a reality. Most existing housing stock is not designed for disabled persons and this has made the transition difficult. The frost line in many regions being as deep as 1.8 meters, the necessity for deep foundations make it economical and logical to have a basement. In order to get natural light into the basement the ground floor is usually about one meter above grade, and steps are, therefore, a traditional design element. Retrofitting this type of housing to make it accessible for wheelchair users is a great challenge.

In Canada, none of the provinces, which are responsible for housing, have passed legislation that requires housing to be retrofitted for accessibility. CMHC, the national housing agency insures mortgage loans for housing built under the terms of the National Housing Act and it requires that at least 5% of multiple-unit housing be built as mobility units. It describes a mobility unit as one in which space is provided for maneuvering a wheelchair but in which there are no special fittings for physically or mentally impaired persons. Walls are re-enforced at strategic locations in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars should they be required. These units can then be adapted to the particular needs of a disabled occupant.

CMHC has produced design guidelines for housing disabled persons , for housing elderly persons , for nursing homes and for site development . It has also made special provisions in its Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP) for the special needs of disabled persons. Eligibility for loans and grants is dependent upon income as well as medical certification. The province of Quebec will add to the federal grant and so will the city of Montreal. In 1987 the Ontario Ministry of Housing amended its Home Renewal Program to include modifications required by disabled persons. Older cities in Ontario still have low-rise housing in core areas even though realty taxes are high. In most of these cities, infill housing is permitted to increase the density of residential accommodation. When building permits are issued for the renovation of older homes in these areas the applicants are encouraged to take advantage of the Ontario Home Renewal Program for Disabled Persons. Other provinces have similar programs although few are so enriched. In the province of Alberta, the City of Calgary is concerned with the decrease in space for ground level activities. Consequently, several blocks in the core area have been designated as eligible for an increase in density (higher buildings), provided the developer incorporates park areas and/or contributes to the restoration of historical sites. This is done without legislation. A Heritage board advises the City Council. Another advisory committee advises City Council on the compliance of proposed renovations to accessibility standards.

All provinces have access to the federal Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP). This housing program has recently been amended to include the conversion of non-residential buildings to dwelling units for disabled persons. The province of Quebec has taken advantage of this program, particularly in the cities of Montreal and Quebec.

In the private sector the building industry has been very slow in providing accommodations for disabled persons. The assumptions that the cost of providing accessibility are prohibitive are not based on fact and are now being challenged. For example, a study done in the United States provided evidence that in large-scale apartment housing the accessibility features increased the cost by less than 0.5%. In Ottawa, 9 specially designed units in a project of 54 townhouses cost 8 - 10% more than the others but added only 0.5% to the overall project cost. The effect on rental scales is therefore negligible. Similarly, a CMHC report of 17 case studies indicated that, in most cases, the accessibility features added 0.39 - 0.53% to the building cost. 

Public Buildings

There is little or no federal funding available for the renovation or upgrading of commercial or public facilities except those that are owned by the federal government.. Public Works Canada is the biggest landlord in Canada. In 1978 it allocated $35 million to make adaptations to its buildings to make them basically accessible over a 5-year program and succeeded in meeting this goal while spending only 93% of the budgeted amount. CMHC added a lift to its National Office building in 1984 to make the cafeteria accessible. Other parts of the building had been made accessible much earlier. There are still many deficiencies in federal government buildings but, generally, basic accessibility has been achieved.

The National Capital Commission (NCC) has jurisdiction over planning and development of federal government land and some buildings in the National Capital Region (Ottawa and district). Its Parks Division has upgraded parks and recreational facilities to make them accessible. Several heritage buildings, owned by the NCC, have undergone extensive renovation. Sprinklers were added to all rooms from which a safe evacuation could not be guaranteed. 

Public Transportation

The IRC provided assistance to the Canadian Transport Commission in developing standards for retrofitting railroad stations and coaches to make them accessible to disabled passengers. Research is now being carried out in vehicle design and in technical aids for boarding trains. Transport Canada (TC) has updated its Barrier-Free Design Standards for airport terminals and has undertaken a compliance survey of 130 airports. The new standards are based on Public Works Canada standards, "Barrier-Free Design" , but they are more thorough, especially in the area of building requirements for hearing impaired and visually impaired persons. 


Human rights legislation in Canada, introduced anti-discriminatory clauses in 1976 and these were refined in the decade that followed. Affirmative Action programs were developed to provide equal opportunities for employment in civil services and any work depending on government funding.

In 1980 a Parliamentary Committee was set up to examine issues and problems facing disabled Canadians and to recommend corrective measures. The Committee’s report, entitled "Obstacles" was published in 1981. It contained 130 recommendations. Every year, departments of federal government are expected to report on their progress in responding to these recommendations. The 1986 response to improvements in the employment of disabled persons notes the following:

a) that a Court Challenges Program is expanded to cover all equality-seeking sectors as of September 1985;


b) there is agreement in principle that mentally disabled persons have the right to be enumerated to vote;


c) the status and mandate of the parliamentary subcommittee on persons with disabilities was renewed;


d) participation in the Declaration of the Decade of Disabled Persons was approved in December 1985;


e) the Secretary of State established a permanent Status of Disabled Persons Secretariat;


f) the Secretariat initiated a 5-year $16 million program of assistance to disabled persons’ consumer organizations;


g) the passing of employment equity legislation (Bill C.62) in June 1986, to promote the employment of disabled persons in the private sector.



Disabled persons have complained that the lack of government funding for technical aids and care services forces them to deplete their income thereby reducing their purchasing power. Access to goods is often prohibited by handicapping environments or attitudes. Now, these problems can be challenged through human rights legislation. 


All provinces have health insurance plans funded by federal and provincial health departments. Personal or attendant care is funded by Community and Social Services in most provinces and only limited service is provided. Health services are very seldom provided in residential environments. There are several independent living projects for disabled persons in Canada where rent is geared to income (a supplement is paid by housing authorities) and personal care services are funded either by provincial departments of community and social services or by health departments.

Transportation is a service with facilities such as stations, stops and terminals. The right to transportation services is mandated by human rights legislation. The Ontario human rights code contained clauses that limited access to transportation for disabled persons but these have been amended by the enactment of the Equality Rights Statute Amendment Act, 1985, to conform to the Charter of Freedom and Rights. Other provincial codes are following suit. There is no accessibility standard for all transportation facilities. There are standards for VIA Rail (national) stations and terminals and standards for air terminals, but none for bus transportation facilities. 


Federal and provincial legislation decrees that every Canadian has the right to equal treatment without discrimination with respect to services, goods and facilities. It does not define equal. ’Equal’ is not equivalent to ’same’ since adjustments are required to eliminate those elements that are a handicap to some persons, thereby creating inequality.

The National Housing Act, formulated in the thirties and later amended, made no specific provision for disabled persons but it was sufficiently flexible to allow the development of programs for special consumer groups.

The National Building Code is published by the National Research Council under the direction of the Associate Committee on the National Building Code. Authors are members of Standing Committees for various sections of the code. Membership of the Standing Committee on Barrier-Free Design is representative of the construction industry as well as disability groups. The National Building Code published a supplement in 1965 entitled Building Standards for the Handicapped. The fourth edition, published in 1980, was the last one, since building requirements for disabled persons are now incorporated in the main body of the code. The code is submitted for public comment and the Standing Committees examine recent research as well as public comment before making revisions. The next edition, which will be published in 1990, will contain more extensive prescriptions for accessibility to hearing impaired and visually impaired persons.

Since building comes under provincial jurisdiction, the National Building Code is only applicable to federal buildings. However, it is written in such a form that it can be adopted as a provincial or a municipal by-law. Most provinces have adopted the National Building Code as a provincial code or used it as a model to produce their own.

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), a private sector organization which develops standards and provides certification and testing services, has formed a Technical Committee on Barrier-Free Design which had its first meeting on July 14, 1987. The purpose of this committee is to develop a standard on design and construction requirements to make the built environment accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. Building codes will then have the option of extracting standards from their text wherever a reference can be made to a unified CSA standard. The codes will then deal more appropriately with the implementation of standards.

A considerable amount of research has been carried out by the National Research Council and other agencies in the standardization of handrails, guardrails, stair design, emergency evacuation requirements, wayfinding systems, communication systems and other accessibility features, but analyses are not far enough advanced to bring about changes in codes and standards. This has led to the development of design guidelines, some of which have been adopted as interim standards. Some examples: the design guidelines published by Public Works Canada in 1985 were accepted by Treasury Board as the standard to be used in making federal buildings accessible; Transport Canada developed the PWA standard in more detail to create its own design standards for air terminals ; VIA-Rail Canada used the design guidelines prepared by the Canadian Transport Commission and the Institute for Research in Construction to establish its Barrier-Free Design Standards for rail terminals and VIA stations . Many government agencies have developed accessibility compliance checklists, most of them based on Building Practice Note 59 published by NRC. 

Status of Disabled Persons Secretariat

In 1980, the federal government established the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped. Its members represented all political parties. This Committee prepared the report "Obstacles" for the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981. The report recommended action to meet the many needs of disabled Canadians which were not being met by the public and private sectors. Follow-up reports have been published in subsequent years. In 1983 the Prime Minister appointed the Secretary of State as Minister responsible for the Status of Disabled Persons Secretariat in response to a recommendation of the Obstacles report. This position was re-affirmed in 1984 and became permanent in 1986. The Minister has committed Canada to the World Program of Action concerning disabled persons, and to participation in the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons. A Declaration on the Decade of Disabled Persons was signed by the Prime Minister in December 1985. In 1986, the Secretariat allocated funds in the amount of $720,000 for the creation of the Walter Dinsdale Information Service Center at the University of Calgary. This agency is developing a databank of information on persons with disabilities and their needs. 


Early results of the June 1986 census reported a total population figure of 25,116,102 Canadians, not including those living in temporary residences or people outside the country. This was the first Canadian census that attempted to collect data on persons with disabilities. Data has not been fully analyzed but it is evident that there will be some gaps in the information. The Canadian Health and Disability Survey of 1983-84 had similar gaps. The latter found that 12.8% of the population over the age of 15 was disabled. The survey did not include mentally ill persons, children under 15 years of age, people who are temporarily disabled (because of broken bones, strained muscles, mental fatigue, etc.) and about 3% of the population, living in remote northern regions and not surveyed. The addition of children, mentally disabled persons, and northern populations to the 1986 census would bring the total number of disabled persons to 3,860,000 which is over 15% of the population (not including those who are temporarily disabled).

The accuracy of these figures cannot be confirmed but they would indicate that over 113,000 persons are permanently confined to wheelchairs; about one out of every 225 persons in Canada. Statistical information is not provided on the many other disabled persons who are not using wheelchairs and who require assistance in evacuating the upper floors of a building during a fire emergency or other disaster situation. Building codes and standards have addressed the issue of accessibility but the problems of emergency egress cannot all be solved by architectural changes. 

Emergency Evacuation

The Institute for Research in Construction studied evacuation techniques for disabled persons in 1983 . Subsequent studies in Canada and the USA have revealed that firefighters are seldom trained in the application of these techniques. Some fire safety officials in both countries are advocating architectural changes such as areas of refuge on stair landings or adjacent to fire stairs. In some older heritage buildings there are sometimes areas that are acceptable with little or no adaptation. The problems in providing areas of refuge are door design, air handling and pressurization. These problems are currently being studied at the Institute for Research in Construction, National Research Council Canada. The study "Evacuation Techniques for Disabled Persons" was followed by the preparation of a manual of good practice for fire safety in homes for the elderly. Both these studies emphasize the need for continuous handrails in stairs. Size, shape and positioning of handrails in old buildings is not always appropriate. This is also stressed in the research work of Jake Pauls , Byron Johnson , John Archea , and Jonathan Sime . Canadian building code officials and standards agencies are paying closer attention to stair design and fire safety techniques in the current round of revisions to codes and standards. 

National Non-Government Organizations

Many consumer organizations are playing an active role in the policy decision-making process at a national level. The most common interaction is through participation in planning and review committees for research and development projects initiated by various departments of government. Some of these organizations act at both national and provincial levels. These include the National Advisory Council on Aging, the Coalition of Provincial Organizations for the Handicapped, the Canadian Rehabilitation Council for the Disabled, the Canadian Paraplegic Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Canadian Co-Coordinating Council on Deafness, the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and many others. Some are subsidized by governments; others are funded by private non-profit granting agencies such as United Way. All of these organizations are advocates of accessibility to our built environment for disabled persons while respecting the preservation of our existing cultural heritage.

Canada did not adhere to the terms of the "Unesco World Heritage Convention" of 1972 until July 1976 but, long before that, respect had been shown for certain heritage sites. The lack of legislative control, however, made it difficult to prevent some regrettable demolitions. Federal government buildings were protected by its Historic Sites Branch but the private sector was growing more frustrated by its lack of power to protect its heritage environment from destruction. The Heritage Canada Foundation was launched in 1973 in accordance with the provisions of the Canada Corporations Act. The federal government had perceived the urgent need of a national organization and moved quickly to help. Fortunately it was recognized that a preservation society would work best, if it were independent of government and thereby in a position to criticize government policies. The foundation is incorporated as a national charitable foundation. The foundation has developed an expertise in preservation technology and an educational capacity. It advises government and private industry. Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committees have been established under the guidance of provincial chapters. These committees identify and evaluate heritage buildings and historical sites. They establish the degree of protection required by their architectural and design integrity, their urban setting, their landmark value and their historic importance. 

Regional Non-Government Organization

All provinces now have historic preservation societies and some have some legislative support. Provincial building codes generally do not apply to existing buildings until extensive renovations are undertaken. After many tragic fires, Quebec City now makes the installation of sprinklers mandatory in all buildings in the old city core (Lower Town). All remaining buildings in Lower Town have been designated heritage buildings although some are being de-classified upon advice from the historic preservation society. The Quebec Building Code also requires that public buildings be made accessible unless this realization causes undue hardship. Because Lower Town is very hilly it is usually assumed that the provision of accessibility will cause the owner an undue hardship. Consequently one seldom sees a person using a wheelchair in Lower Town. Many provinces have similar "undue hardship" clauses. Saskatchewan has a very stringent Accessibility Standard which was initiated by its Human Rights Commission but it was never adopted as law and there is no mechanism for implementation. Nevertheless it has been used to make about 70% of the provincial buildings accessible including Parliament Buildings, the Provincial Courthouse and other heritage public buildings.

The Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs had funded an advisory council for disabled persons (l’office des personnes handicapees du Quebec - OPHQ). The OPHQ is lobbying for greater accessibility in Quebec and Montreal core areas but has had little success to date in getting disabled persons beyond the front door of commercial establishments. On the other hand, virtually all government buildings are now accessible. This imbalance is expected to change fairly soon since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom put into effect, in 1985, a clause guaranteeing that "every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on .... mental or physical disability." One can argue that construction laws which disregard this clause are inconsistent with the spirit of the constitution.

The Ontario government has appointed a Minister for DisabledÝPersons. This Ministry funds the Ontario Advisory Council for Senior Citizens and the Ontario Advisory Council of Disabled Persons although these are not considered to be government bodies. These advisory councils research the needs of special user groups, consult with consumers at the grass-roots level and recommend policy changes to the Minister who then places these before the House of Commons for discussion. Both of these councils are influential in improving accessibility, for elderly and disabled persons, to shelter, employment, goods and services. In a recent report on transportation they have recommended that all modes of urban and inter-urban public transportation be made accessible by the year 2010.

Advocacy for barrier-free design is very recent in Canada. The IRC was the forerunner with its supplement to the National Building Code in 1965. The provinces started developing barrier-free design criteria about ten years later: Alberta in 1974; Ontario in 1975; Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Quebec in 1978; Saskatchewan in 1979; Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia in 1980; Manitoba, New Brunswick in 1981. It is a new field of interest in a relatively new country. By 1990, building codes will have defined barrier-free design requirements fairly well for new buildings, and the problems of retrofitting will be addressed with more ardor. Provincial activity in most cases was initiated by non-government advocacy groups, quite often instigated or inspired by the IRC and CMHC in cross-country seminars throughout the seventies and early eighties. 

Local, Grass-Roots Organizations

The influence of community volunteer groups should not be under-estimated. In Montreal, a group of disabled persons decided that they could live independently in their own apartments, if they could obtain a guarantee of attendant care services. On a trial contract, the province provided the service and funded renovations to an eight-storey building where one bay was gutted to be replaced by a stack of eight wheelchair-accessible bathrooms so wheelchairs would not be "ghettoized" on one floor. The operation proved successful and subsequent phases have been built.

Simultaneously, in Ontario, there were pilot projects for independent living being initiated by volunteer groups in four cities. All were launched in 1976 on a three year contract. All were successful and have continued to expand. Similar experiences have been reported in all regions. Many of the independent living projects are in older buildings that were not designed with accessibility in mind.

There is a spin-off from these projects. The same, or other volunteer groups, have undertaken to pressure municipal authorities to provide accessible streets and to remove obstacles from the path of these newly independent citizens as they move about in the community to do business or for social and recreational functions. The city of Ottawa, for instance, has formed a Disabled Citizens’ Advisory Committee which reports to City Council. Another volunteer group called Barrier-Free Environment Committee does accessibility compliance assessments of buildings, streets, recreational and other facilities and recommends changes to the owners or responsible administrators. Its reports have affected the design of national museums, the international airport, the provincial courtrooms, hospital and university buildings, city streets and parks. The volunteer committee draws expertise from IRC, PWC and other agencies.

IRC and the Ottawa Fire Department are collaborating with the Barrier-Free Environment Committee in investigating the problem of emergency egress in old buildings where space allocations do not meet today’s building code requirements. There is a concern: that firefighters need better training in handling disabled persons in fire emergencies where elevators are not available for evacuation; and that stair designs limit maneuverability when assisting mobility impaired persons. Experts in Japan, Britain and USA are doing similar studies and an exchange of information is carried out through the Building Use and Safety Institute and the Environmental Design Research Institute. Together, these experts, with input from the grass-roots volunteer groups, are identifying areas of research to be done in building use and safety for disabled persons in emergency situations. 


Canada has made considerable progress in developing barrier-free environments since IRC’s first edition of "Building Standards for the Handicapped" in 1965. Human Rights legislation now contains anti-discriminatory clauses which protect disabled persons, thereby providing opportunities for equal access to shelter, employment, goods and services. Federal and provincial departments of government are addressing the issue of accessibility to the built environment. Non-government organizations are playing an important role in identifying the issues and providing registries of people and buildings. The network includes local volunteer groups who assist government agencies in research and development. Areas of research are identified in emergency evacuation techniques for disabled persons and the resultant effects on building design. 

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