Accessing ability through city design

by Janine Oosterveld, Manager Customer Experience & Project Management

Ability is a continuum. At different ages and stages of our lives, we will all experience disability of some kind. My awareness of accessibility challenges in city design grew as I had a young family – pushing a stroller through the city to go to parks and other activities. With the birth of my second child with a diagnosis of Down syndrome my awareness grew further through his experience and that of his peers. However, I can still go out for dinner at a downtown restaurant without thinking twice about how I will get there, the step at the door, if I can read the menu and communicate my order, or that the washrooms are in the basement. Spontaneity is easy when your body fits the norms of city design.

Meeting Luke Anderson and Paula Saunders through the Building Equitable Cities panel discussion brought greater awareness to my own blinders. Luke identified that we all have blinders (biases and conditioning) based on our lived experience. Having awareness for the blinders opens the opportunity for co-creation and more accessible design solutions when we take action to include those with different experiences to our own.

Luke modeled inclusivity through his use of simple images and verbal description to tell his own story and that of the StopGap Foundation. What would it be like to require assistance every single time you enter and leave your own workplace? This is what inspired StopGap and the colourful ramps that add beauty and raise awareness of barriers to accessing needs and wants of daily living. Additionally, the illusive Ramp Man with his superhero cape and mask adds levity to opening conversations about how city design can be disabling and what can be done to fix it.

Paula Saunders explained the role of the Grand River Accessibility Advisory Committee’s built environment sub-committee to evaluate public spaces and buildings to reduce barriers. She shared how both major infrastructure like road design and smaller details like the layout of public washrooms can have a significant impact on user experience. She pointed out that it is difficult (if not impossible) to make all public space fully accessible to everyone, but continuous improvement is valuable to create a more welcoming city.

Paula identified that while she and Luke are both wheelchair users, their experiences are not necessarily the same. Additionally, their “disability” experience as wheelchair users is also unique from a person who experiences blindness or is neurodivergent. This is why co-creation and engagement opportunities are so important. Integrating a spectrum of experience in the design and planning process broadens who can use the space with ease by their ideas inspired by lived experience. While preparing for this session, I have been learning more about how much effort may be needed to plan for and navigate space for those that don’t fit the design norm. There is a constant need to be “on”- thinking about safe, barrier free routes, rest locations, accessible washrooms – the things some of us take for granted. And that awareness can spark creative solutions.

Admittedly, I was nervous about hosting this event as someone who doesn’t identify as having a disability. Luke gave participants permission to get over that fear of messing up and saying the wrong thing because positive intentions shine through. We all must be part of the conversation to drop the blinders to support inclusive spaces.

What blinders do you wear? Share your “aha” moment when you became aware of your bias and conditioning.

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Thank you to everyone who joined us for this five-part speaker series in 2022/2023. Together, we explored topics related to how we can make city infrastructure and services more equitable and accessible for all residents. The speaker series has now concluded. If you have any questions, please contact the Planning division at

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