Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)
Have you ever wondered why the design of the objects we use and spaces around us are getting better and seem to relate to our bodies or the way we do things in a much more obvious way than ever before?
Barrier-Free Design allows the greatest majority of people equal access to the private and public spaces of our built environment. The aim is to minimize or eliminate physical, cognitive, and sensory barriers in our homes, businesses, and public spaces and even our streets.
Consider the front entrance of a building. Sidewalk curbs, uneven walkways, multiple stairs, heavy doors, and lack of handrails. All these can prevent access because they can create barriers for individuals.
Universal design methods such as curb cuts, level and slip-resistant walkway surfaces, properly designed ramps, accessible washrooms, automatic doors, lifts, and colour-contrasted handrails are all examples of ways to support increased and barrier-free access not just for folks with a physical disability but for all of us, including children, the elderly, parents with strollers and many others.
Occupational Therapy promotes a wide range of barrier-free design and universal design principles that have helped to make better buildings and spaces in our communities.
There is a greater awareness in society that our buildings and spaces must be more accessible to the greatest majority of people. There are far more products and methods for creating barrier-free environments today than ever before which can be great for finding the right product or design solution for an individual. On the other hand, the vast and ever-growing range of products and design solutions can also be confusing, making choosing the right product a difficult one. Occupational Therapists have the knowledge and experience to help facilitate the right approach by drawing on current research and best practices for creating barrier-free spaces.
Occupational Therapists provide helpful information and design advice to architects, designers, and contractors when it comes to creating barrier-free spaces inside homes, businesses, gardens, and even public spaces. And since there is a wide range of barriers that can contribute to preventing an individual from completing an activity such as reaching or bending, OTs help by determining what the barriers are for an individual and facilitating products and design strategies that can help surmount these barriers.
As OTs, we have the privilege to serve the needs of many people in the community and using our skills and practices to help people meet their individual needs of daily living and have productive and rewarding life experiences. For many, this may only be accomplished by implementing a barrier-free experience in their homes, businesses, and places they like to visit.
- For individuals with visual impairments, spaces should have adequate lighting, colour contrasting surfaces where appropriate, tactile cueing and signage as well as audible alarm systems. For individuals with auditory impairments, visual signage and alarm systems (for example, flashing lights) are necessary.
- For someone in a wheelchair, a barrier-free experience may include modifications to their workplace kitchens and washrooms. Fixtures such as light switches, sinks, paper towel dispensers, toilet paper dispensers and grab bars must be installed at a height that can be reached from a seated position.
Ultimately, the goal of barrier-free design is to promote equal access and participation for everyone. There have been many steps taken toward ensuring this type of design prevails in our communities. There are new laws supporting improved accessibility within Ontario as of January of 2015. Is your building up to code? Consulting an occupational therapist can help to ensure your space meets the new criteria.