While the COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the need for safe housing, Ontarians with disabilities have always lived with the harsh reality that their housing choices are extremely limited, chronically inaccessible and often substandard and unsafe.
One in seven Ontarians have a disability. Yet, Ontarians with disabilities routinely face discriminatory screening practices by landlords and blanket refusals to retrofit accessibility features when accommodation needs arise. People with disabilities are regularly forced to file legal claims simply to get landlords to remove barriers and build safer environments; for example, litigating the installation of ramps, accessible parking, automated doors, brighter lighting, widened entrances, handrails, switching floors, etc. These are just a few of the types of claims that have gone before human rights tribunals and landlord and tenant boards.
For over a decade, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has pointed out that the onus is not just on housing providers to respect the right to accessibility. All levels of government, community planners and housing developers must promote disability rights by committing to universal design for any new housing construction. Accessible housing is not a panacea for eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities, but is a critical step toward facilitating safety, security and independence.
On National Housing Day, the OHRC calls on the Province to amend Ontario’s Building Code Regulation to require all units in new construction or major renovation of multi-unit residences to fully meet universal accessibility standards. The OHRC also calls on municipalities to prioritize universal design construction, consistent with their obligations under the Code. Government and housing providers must work together to make sure that new developments are fully inclusive, because Ontarians deserve no less.
“Universal design” makes housing accessible and adaptable not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.
A 2019 Angus Reid Institute study found that over half of Canadians surveyed were concerned about their home being inaccessible as their family aged. Universal design allows people to age with dignity – in their own homes and communities – without costly retrofits, searching for new housing or being forced into residential care.
The economic and social benefits of aging in our own homes are well established. The pandemic has exposed the unfortunate truth that residential care, while necessary for some people, is an expensive option that carries significant risks.
Universal design isn’t just a human rights ideal – it saves money. New research from HCMA Architecture and the Rick Hansen Foundation finds that while universal design costs about 1% more up front, accessible units save money for landlords and residential care providers by removing the need to retrofit later.
Universal design can help reduce pressure on hospitals and residential care. When paired with affordable housing initiatives, we move closer to the goal of ensuring all Ontarians have safe and adequate housing and the improved social outcomes that result. This just makes social and economic sense.