Accessible Housing in Nova Scotia

A three-part series looking at looking at accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia (3/3)
A row of colourful row houses on a city street.
A row of maritime houses in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

For Nova Scotians with disabilities, gaining access to housing that is accessible and allows for an appropriate level of independence has long been met with challenges. While many Canadian provinces were in the process of deinstitutionalization (e.g., moving those with disabilities into community living arrangements) by the early 2000s, Nova Scotia continued to house a significant share of its disabled residents in institutional settings. In an attempt to rectify this situation, the Province put together a plan in 2013. Importantly, this “roadmap” included a commitment to deinstitutionalize the roughly 1,100 individuals living in institutional settings at the time through the expansion of community-based housing options and supports by 2023.

Now that 2023 is here and the country is in the middle of the 10-year long National Housing Strategy (NHS), it is as good a time as ever to look at how the accessible housing landscape in Nova Scotia has changed.

In its 2021 progress reporting on the Province’s commitment to deinstitutionalization, Nova Scotia’s Disability Rights Coalition identified a number of concerning findings. While the number of Nova Scotians with disabilities housed in institutional settings saw a modest decline to an estimated 900, it was found that no institutional facilities had yet to be closed. Further, it was found that the Province’s Disability Support Program waitlists for community-based housing options and/or supports had increased by 74% since 2013, which, it was argued, was indicative of the Province’s continued failure to implement strategies and investments that aim to better include individuals with disabilities in communities.

An orange and white graphic with black icons.
An orange and white graphic comparing the number of Nova Scotians with disabilities relocated from living in institutional settings between 2013-2021 (200) and the percentage of growth seen in the waitlist for community-based housing and/or supports in the same time period (increased 74%).

Naturally, the question arises of how Nova Scotia plans to meet the housing needs of its residents living with disabilities. Through Housing Nova Scotia (HNS) – the provincial agency responsible for providing Nova Scotians in need with affordable housing solutions – several smaller-scale programs are in place to provide individuals with disabilities and seniors with funds to modify their homes to meet changing needs. Larger-scale HNS programs whose primary aims are to build new affordable housing units are also concerned (though less directly) with addressing the Province’s the need for accessible housing. For projects funded through these programs, developers have the option of either (a) providing 1 in 20 barrier-free units, or (b) having all units comply with Nova Scotia Building Code adaptable housing requirements. Notably, there is currently no available data on the number of accessible units that have benefited/been built as a result of these HNS programs.

Housing Nova Scotia also manages the delivery of three programs affiliated with the NHS through bilateral cost-sharing programs with the federal government: the Nova Scotia Priorities Initiative, the Federal Community Housing Initiative, and the Canada-Nova Scotia Targeted Housing Benefit. In delivering these programs, HNS is required to create an action plan outlining housing targets set through consultation with the federal government will be met and report on progress every six months. In its most recent action plan, HNS does state that increasing the supply of accessible housing that is affordable is a priority, noting the high percentage of Nova Scotians living with a disability and the Province’s aging demographics. However, in terms of targets for accessible units, HNS’ action plan aims to build just 10 new accessible units for the 2022/23 year, and 90 by 2027/28.

Additionally, in its framing of accessible housing that is affordable as a need in Nova Scotia, it is important to note that the action plan makes no reference to the need to find suitable community-based options for the roughly 900 individuals currently housed in institutional settings, nor for the roughly 1,900 individuals currently on Disability Support Program waitlists. Further, there is no explanation for how the target of 90 newly constructed accessible units by 2027/28 was set, nor for whether this target remains appropriate.

A foot of a person using a wheelchair encountering a step at the bottom of a staircase.
A photo of the foot of a person using a wheelchair encountering a step at the bottom of a staircase.

How little housing outcomes have improved for Nova Scotians with disabilities since the Province’s commitment to deinstitutionalization and the operationalization of the NHS is extremely concerning, and highlights the urgent need for significant change at both the National and Provincial level.

In Nova Scotia, the development of a strategic action plan focused solely on addressing accessible housing need could be highly beneficial. At its core, this plan could focus on finding suitable housing accommodations for those living in institutional settings and on Disability Support Program waitlists, as well as on addressing the need to increase the stock of accessible housing units as the provincial population continues to age. Having HNS and the Department of Community Services (who administers the Disability Support Program) collaborate on the creation and implementation of such a plan would be crucial for the plans’ success, as both agencies have mutual interest and responsibility in meeting the Province’s accessible housing needs.

As this blog series has shown, there is still much work to be done in both Canada and Nova Scotia in the area of accessible housing. While various policies and programs have been launched to address the need for more accessible housing units, the targets that have been set (and means to achieve these targets) appear to be insufficient to adequately address current needs. Whether it is re-calibrating or hitting the reset button entirely, it is clear that the National Housing Strategy and provincial programs in Nova Scotia need to be overhauled if we are going to have any chance of improving housing outcomes for Canadians with disabilities on a large scale.

Further Reading

The Nova Scotia Joint Community-Government Advisory Committee on Transforming the Services to Persons with Disabilities Program. (2013). Choice, Equality and Good Lives in Inclusive Communities: A Roadmap for Transforming the Nova Scotia Services to Persons with Disabilities Program. https://novascotia.ca/coms/transformation/docs/Choice_Equality_and_Good_Lives_in_Inclusive_Communities.pdf

Disability Rights Coalition. (2021). Call to Action: The Road to Inclusion and Equality for People with Disabilities—Government Accountability on the Roadmap Choice, Quality and Good Lives in Inclusive Communities. Disability Rights Coalition. https://www.disabilityrightscoalitionns.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Disability-Rights-Road-to-Inclusion-2023-FINAL-REPORT.pdf

HNS. (2022). 2022—2023 Action Plan. Housing Nova Scotia. https://housing.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/22-51891%20-%20HNS%20202223%20Action%20Plan-Accessible-English-final.pdf

Office of the Fire Marshal. (2019). Adaptable Housing: Nova Scotia Building Code. Government of Nova Scotia. https://www.thespine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/adaptable-housing.pdf

A smiling young man wearing a dark blue sweater and glasses.

About the Author

John Gamey (MPlan) graduated from Dalhousie University’s Master of Planning program in May 2023. This blog series outlines some of the research he conducted in the area of accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia under the supervision of Dr. Mikiko Terashima.

Accessibility & Canada’s National Housing Strategy

A three-part series looking at accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia (2/3)

Made official in 2017, Canada’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) is a 10-year, $72 billion dollar plan comprised of various programs and funding streams that intend to “create a new generation of housing in Canada” that is “sustainable, accessible, mixed-income, and mixed-use”. A central goal the NHS is to address the housing crises being experienced in many cities and regions across Canada, which are largely characterized by significant shortages in affordable housing stock and increasing homelessness.

Since its inception, the NHS has aimed to improve housing outcomes for a number of “priority groups” that it classifies as vulnerable. Of these groups, several have housing needs that go beyond the traditional housing standards of affordability, adequacy, and suitability – often requiring that housing is accessible. NHS priority groups that may need accessible housing include people with physical disabilities, people with developmental disabilities, and seniors. At its outset, the NHS recognized that Canadians with disabilities face a host of difficulties in accessing housing that is not only affordable but appropriate for their needs, which it vowed to address by improving accessibility in housing units across the country.

An orange graphic with black text arranged in a list.
A list of groups prioritized by the National Housing Strategy.

While this commitment to improving housing outcomes for Canadians with disabilities was welcomed news, important questions still loomed: how many accessible housing units were going to be built through NHS programming, and how? Would the NHS be able to significantly alleviate Canada’s need for accessible housing units?

In terms of targets for accessible housing units to be constructed, two significant numbers were put forward: the NHS would build 2,400 new housing units for Canadians with developmental disabilities and 12,000 new affordable units for seniors, both through the National Housing Co-Investment Fund. As of the December 2022 NHS Progress Report, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reported that 845 new units for people with developmental disabilities are at the “commitment” stage, as are 5,925 new units for seniors. However, it is important to note that data pertaining to accessible and affordable units currently under construction or that have been successfully built as a result of the NHS has not yet been provided. Perhaps even more importantly, the relationship between the targets that were set and an identified need for accessible housing units is unclear.

Along with the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, the Rental Construction Financing Initiative and the Rapid Housing Initiative make up the three NHS programs receiving the highest levels of funding, all of which are focused on the construction, renewal, and repair of housing units. These three programs feature another way in which the NHS addresses Canada’s need for accessible housing: project accessibility requirements.

An orange and white graphic with black text.
An orange and white graphic of residential units at the commitment stage for people with developmental disabilities (845) and units at the commitment stage for seniors (5,925), with an unknown number of units that have been built as a result of NHS programming for priority groups in need of accessible housing.

In short, these requirements aim to ensure that any project receiving funds through these programs must, to some extent, provide housing that can be considered accessible. For instance, the National Housing Co-Investment Fund gives developers the choice between (a) ensuring 20% of a project’s units are accessible and has barrier-free common areas, or (b) ensuring the entire project has full universal design. Similarly, the Rental Construction Financing Initiative (10%) and Rapid Housing Initiative (5%) require that a portion of units within a project are accessible. While thousands of units are being built, renewed, and repaired through these three programs, there is no reporting in any case as to whether these accessibility requirements are being met.

Together, limited progress reporting on targets for priority groups and the absence of reporting on program accessibility requirements leads observers to question the NHS’ ability to address Canada’s need for accessible housing. It would certainly be beneficial to know how many of the 15.9% (950,000+) of Canadians with disabilities found to be in core housing need in 2017 no longer classify as such as a result of NHS programming. This, however, is not yet known, and may not be until data from the 2022 Canadian Survey on Disability is released.

An orange graphic with black text.
A graphic displaying the percentage of accessible units required by three Canadian funding/financing programs for residential development.

As the NHS passes the halfway point of its lifespan, it may be an appropriate time to reconsider how it has addressed the need for accessible housing to date. For starters, it would be beneficial if the targets that were set for priority groups in need of accessible housing were clearly tied to an identified need. Whether 2,400 new units for individuals with developmental disabilities and 12,000 new affordable units for seniors will make a significant dent in alleviating housing needs for either of these groups goes is not something that is addressed by the NHS. Undertaking a type of needs assessment for accessible housing that identifies how many accessible housing units are needed (and for which specific priority groups) could allow the NHS to reset its targets and re-calibrate its programs and initiatives to better meet the country’s need for accessible housing. In addition to setting better targets, the NHS could also benefit from improving its progress reporting. Going into further detail about how many accessible housing units have actually been built as a result of NHS programing and how this has alleviated needs could serve to enhance transparency and accountability within the NHS.

To continue this exploration of accessible housing in the age of the NHS, the next blog in this series will take a look at the situation in Nova Scotia – a province that has long needed to see progress made in the area of accessible housing.

Further Reading

CMHC. (2018). Priority areas for action. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/nhs/guidepage-strategy/priority-areas-for-action

CMHC. (2019). Identifying Core Housing Need. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/professionals/housing-markets-data-and-research/housing-research/core-housing-need/identifying-core-housing-need

CMHC. (2022). Progress on the National Housing Strategy: December 2022. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://assets.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/sites/place-to-call-home/pdfs/progress/nhs-progress-quarterly-report-q4-2022-en.pdf?rev=60eda13a-fc61-4bfe-ab46-043ef9fe12dd

CMHC. (2023). What is universal design? Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/blog/2023/what-is-universal-design

Government of Canada. (2016). Canada’s National Housing Strategy. https://www.placetocallhome.ca/what-is-the-strategy

Randle, J., & Thurston, Z. (2022). Housing Experiences in Canada: Persons with disabilities. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/46-28-0001/2021001/article/00011-eng.htm

A smiling young man wearing a dark blue sweater and glasses.

About the Author

John Gamey (MPlan) graduated from Dalhousie University’s Master of Planning program in May 2023. This blog series outlines some of the research he conducted in the area of accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia under the supervision of Dr. Mikiko Terashima.

What is ‘accessible housing’ and why does Canada need more of it?

A three-part series looking at accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia (1/3)

Today, Canadians are hard-pressed to enter a conversation about housing that doesn’t revolve around sky-rocketing home prices, the challenge of finding a reasonably-priced rental unit, or the latest homeless encampment that has materialized locally. Of course, solutions to these challenges are offered up; some argue that incentivizing private developers to build more homes will stimulate the supply side of the problem and bring housing prices down, while others claim that now is the time for governments to begin building and providing housing at a scale not seen since the mid-20th century. What can be agreed upon however, is that Canadians need access to subdivisions, apartments, and condos that are both affordable and better suited to meet their diverse housing requirements. As we aim to better meet the housing needs of current and future generations, there is one aspect of housing that cannot be overlooked: accessibility.

Accessible housing refers to housing that is built or modified to provide persons with disabilities with appropriate features and aids that facilitate movement and different uses within their homes. What makes a home accessible varies in different cases, often dependent on an individual’s circumstances and experience of disability. For instance, somebody with a physical disability may require wider doors, adjustable counters, and a main level bathroom, while somebody with a developmental disability may require sound-reducing features, the installation of dimmer switches, and/or the separation of high stimulation areas from quiet areas.

Two black and white photos side-by-side showing a bathroom with a roll-in shower that has a shower seat, grab bars, and hose shower head.
An example of a bathroom with a shower designed with features (e.g., grab bars, level-entrance shower, mounted sink) that make it accessible to a range of users with mobility disabilities. (Image source: Anne Camozzi, as pictured in Vaughan et al. (2022)).

As researchers and academics have highlighted, accessible housing in Canada is currently in “critically short supply”, forcing many with disabilities to live in homes that limit their independence. The most recent Canadian Survey on Disability conducted in 2017 (data from the 2022 Survey is not yet available) estimated that over 6.2 million Canadians live with at least one disability. Of the 55.8% of Canadians with physical disabilities, 13% indicated that they were unable to obtain the accessibility features and aids that they needed in their homes. The lack of an appropriate level of accessible housing stock is becoming an increasingly urgent issue in Canada. This is especially important when considering the Country’s aging population, as it is well-documented that functional limitations (e.g., difficulty with mobility, vision, hearing, communication) are more prevalent among older adults – meaning the demand for accessible housing will continue to grow.

An orange graphic of the country of Canada with white and black text.
An orange and white graphic displaying the population of Canadians with physical disabilities who report being unable to access accessibility features for their homes (450,000), and Canadians with disabilities in core housing need (950,000).

Today’s data shows that Canadians with disabilities are more likely to live in housing that is unaffordable, in need of major repairs, and/or be in core housing need when compared to Canadians who do not experience disability. These inequities are further amplified amongst Canadians with disabilities who rent, as they often face even greater difficulties when searching for rental housing that meets their needs. Literature suggests that discriminatory views can play a factor in denying renters with disabilities from accessing suitable housing, as landlords may be less willing to and/or may outright deny tenancy applications on the basis of an individual’s disability. This can leave disabled renters with few options, in some cases forcing them to pick from units that are unaffordable, in poor condition, or unfit to accommodate their personal circumstances. Modifying an existing home for accessibility can also be more burdensome for those with disabilities, as they tend to have lower-than-average incomes and less access to employment opportunities compared to the non-disabled population.

Orange text bubbles with black text and orange and white icons.
An orange graphic displaying the two criteria for a household to be considered in core housing need.

Improving housing outcomes for Canadians with disabilities in the present and ensuring that our aging population will have access to housing that meets its changing needs in the future are significant undertakings for our policymakers. To explore how the provision of accessible housing has been addressed at the federal level in recent years, the next blog in this series will take a closer look at how Canada’s 2017-launched National Housing Strategy has aimed to meet Canada’s need for accessible housing, as well as what progress has been made to date.

Further Reading

CMHC. (2018). Accessible Housing by Design. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/professionals/industry-innovation-and-leadership/industry-expertise/accessible-adaptable-housing/accessible-housing-by-design

CMHC. (2019). Literature Reviews on Housing Needs: Developmental Disabilities, 2019. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://eppdscrmssa01.blob.core.windows.net/cmhcprodcontainer/sf/project/archive/research_6/rr_69757.pdf

CMHC. (2019). Understanding Core Housing Need. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/professionals/housing-markets-data-and-research/housing-research/core-housing-need

Vaughan, K., Terashima, M., Clark, K., & Deturbide, K. (2022). Exploring Stakeholder Perspectives on the UK’s Regulatory Tools for Accessible Housing: Lessons for Canada. Journal of Aging and Environment, 36(1), 90–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/26892618.2021.1877861

A smiling young man wearing a dark blue sweater and glasses.

About the Author

John Gamey (MPlan) graduated from Dalhousie University’s Master of Planning program in May 2023. This blog series outlines some of the research he conducted in the area of accessible housing in Canada and Nova Scotia under the supervision of Dr. Mikiko Terashima.

Life Design Hacks from Tokyo

Many people think of Tokyo as this uber high-tech, Blade Runner-like futuristic city. But once you peel away the surface of that image, Tokyo is really just a conglomerate of living and breathing neighbourhoods occupied by everyday people, living everyday lives—all 14 million of them co-existing in a tightly packed space. Such life in Tokyo comes with some neat life design hacks seen in public spaces. Here are some that I found. 

1. Bicycle escalator

Japan is proud of its public transportation system, especially trains, which have a large web of comprehensive geographical networks that take you anywhere, quickly and cheaply.  The so-called ‘last mile problems’ are addressed by providing ample bicycle parking spaces around train stations. Because this is Japan – where land comes with a premium price tag – spaces can only stretch vertically, not horizontally. Many bicycle parking spaces are above the ground-level. To support bike commuters, this station installed power assisted bicycle escalators. You will walk up the staircases while the little conveyer pushes your bicycle along. 

2. Cooling mist while you shop

Summer in Japan is extremely humid and hot. Many traditional shopping areas have arcade-type roofs installed (so that you can shop in scorching summer or on a rainy day) over multiple buildings. The day I walked through this arcade, the temperature went over 30 degrees, and the cooling mist was coming down from the roof all day to cool down the shoppers.

3. Coin-operated office rentals

For about $3 an hour, you can rent this cubicle at Akabane Station to do some super urgent work—from sending urgent email messages, having a conference call before you get to your real office, to negotiating multi-million dollar deals. The climate-controlled booth is equipped with high-speed internet, a monitor, HDMI cable, and power outlets.        

4. Don’t splash

This rain splash guard is set up in front of the building entrance, to prevent you from getting people around you wet by shaking your umbrella after going through heavy rain.  This reflects a quintessentially Japanese sensibility—being respectful for others who exist around you and share the same spaces. Rain hooks next to the hand-wash basins in public washrooms are partly for the people who carry umbrellas, but they are also there so that people do not put wet umbrellas on the shelf where others need to put their purses.  

5. Drug vending machine

You can purchase non-prescription drugs at Shinjuku Station. Japan has all sorts of vending machines—selling different things from coffee/tea, toys, comic books, to beers and cigarettes, and even home appliances and electronics. This was the first time I saw medicine sold in a vending machine. Turned out, this medicine vending machine is set in the station as a pilot project to assess the usefulness simulating the pandemic scenario where pharmacies are closed.

Many brains are certainly better than one, and there are an awful lot of brains in Tokyo to come up with ways to improve the use of public spaces, and ultimately their quality of life. These life design hacks are manifested in public spaces, demonstrating a blend of uniquely Japanese sensibility that—for better or for worse—they are part of the collective whole.

Accessibility and Tokyo’s Transportation System

Japan enacted its first Barrier-Free Act in 2006, which was updated twice in recent years (2018 and 2020). All tiers of government (federal, prefectural and municipal) in Japan have been pretty serious about making trains and train stations accessible. But the efforts made in Tokyo in the last decade are beyond compare.

DPI Japan, one of the largest and most influential advocacy organizations for the rights of persons with disability, has been monitoring the progress on accessibility in public infrastructures including train stations. According to DPI Japan, there were 476 stations in Tokyo in 1990. Back then, there was no station where wheelchair users could freely get on and off the trains. Merely 16 stations had elevators to go up to the platforms, about a half had any staff to assist persons with disability, and two had an assistive escalator. In 2019, a year before Tokyo Olympic/Paralympic Games 701 (about 92%) of the then total of 760 existing stations met the national accessibility standards, and 97% of the stations had sections where wheelchair users can roll through and get on and off the trains without encountering steps. All have accessible bathrooms. 

All 12 railways companies in Tokyo are privately owned. Of those, Japan Railway (JR) used to be a public entity, which was privatized in the 1980s. Coordinating the daily operations of this super complex train system involving 12 companies sounds like a logistical nightmare, yet they seem to have all figured it out. Likewise, the coordinated efforts by all companies to make trains and train stations accessible are impressive.

One of the challenges faced by these train stations was the gaps between the trains and the platforms. Recommended maximum gap between the door and platform is 7cm (2 ¾ inches). Commuter trains typically run with 10 to 16 cars. To accommodate them, many stations take up a long stretch of land to create the platforms, part of which may create wider gaps than other parts when the platforms are ever slightly curved.    

Because land in Tokyo is already built up to the ying-yang—never mind the enormous costs of renovating the platforms to be entirely straight—they cannot move the stations to a nearby, undeveloped open space (there is none). Making the slightly curved platforms completely straight is cost prohibitive. As a solution, they designated a few spots in the platforms with the narrowest gap as an accessible doorways to incoming trains. Of course, these designated spots need to be exactly the same across all the stations the trains stop at. It is not a simple thing to do. Waiting areas of some spots are less roomy, but they seem to do the job. They do take the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation’ in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and the American Disability Act to heart. Some reasonable accommodations come with hefty price tags. With the firm political backing, trains in Tokyo are becoming more and more accessible every year.  

Talking about train stations…

Tokyo gives a whole new meaning to “transit-oriented development (TOD)”—the now popular concept in both economically developed and developing nations. Japanese cities are so over-populated, they simply cannot function without people’s collective use of public transportation. If everyone drove a car to go to places in the same way North Americans do, the cities would simply freeze up and no one will get anywhere.

Indeed, it has been a national obsession to keep the flow of people as efficient as possible in Japan. It also means that major cities are designed for all the daily destinations to be within close proximities from everyone’s residences. North Americans also often speak of “complete neighbourhoods,” which are hard to achieve in North America given the historic development of urban forms in most cities centered around the use of automobiles. In Tokyo, it is almost impossible not to encounter services that cater to your everyday needs within a few blocks. In fact, neighbourhoods in Tokyo are formed around train stations, which are more than a place to catch a train. They have shopping malls, grocery stores, multiple pharmacies, pubs, schools, daycares, bookstores, restaurants, doctors’ offices, flower shops, pubs, bakeries (they ALWAYS have bakeries). They even have electronics stores and game centres. Train stations ARE the neighbourhood centres. 

Public Washrooms in Tokyo

It has been an eye-opening experience when it comes to finding accessible public washrooms in Japan. Tokyo, in particular, has been making giant strides in making many public washrooms accessible over the past couple of decades. The Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 also boosted the accessibility of the city.  It seems that train stations, shopping malls, and tourist destinations have a healthy number of well-equipped accessible washrooms. It is currently mandated that there must be at least one accessible washroom unit in public facilities of 50 square meters (about 550 square feet) and larger. 

Accessible washrooms in public spaces

The photos below show a washroom on one of the Toyo University campuses—where the Department of Life Design is located (yes, they research how to design accessible washrooms). Many of the public washrooms located in large buildings have a sink for ostomy (left) and an adult change table (right).

Washrooms in train stations, shopping malls, and major tourist destinations (e.g., famous shrines and temples) are often equipped with voice instructions which walk you through the process of using them: from which button to push to open the door, to locking the door, and even how to flush the toilet. Some even alert you to watch for slippery floors. Most of all, public washrooms are CLEAN! Apparently, some users spend time in them to eat lunch, read, and nap on the adult change table.

There seems to be a debate around able-bodied users ‘hogging’ accessible washrooms. However, Professor Yoshihiko Kawauchi, the author of the book, “Barrier-Free without Dignity” cautions judging persons who may have an invisible disability or have a particular privacy need. These accessible public washrooms have become a safe haven for many people. Professor Kawauchi posits that it is about having more washrooms that serve different functions for different needs, and not about making rules for who gets to use them. 

Washroom signs

What is also striking is the signage. Signs for washrooms are large, clear, and detailed, and they are EVERYWHERE. These signs have become part of the aesthetics for busy public spaces, boldly telling you where to go and they are hard to miss. Many of the washrooms also tell you the layout of the washroom complex (often with tactile maps and braille), so that you can anticipate how you might need to navigate the space. Perhaps most important, these location maps almost always show where YOU are so that you can orient yourself before you make your move.  

The caveat

To be careful not to paint the picture of Tokyo as this super futuristic city with anything and everything tech-savvy and new, here is an example of ordinary public washrooms in places like neighbourhood parks and smaller shopping centres. There are more of these than what we see as ‘best practice’ examples on magazines and websites. There are still traditional ‘squatting’ style toilets all over the place, too, and they are a bit… well, shabby.  These are likely to disappear as the places are renovated and new toilets are installed. 

Attention to detail

Somebody must take great pride in designing public washrooms in Japan. Yes, there are some award-winning, fabulous looking washrooms designed by famous architects and designers in Tokyo.

But more mundane, everyday washrooms in busy train stations and shopping malls are also well thought-out. So far, I have yet to encounter a (non-squatting style) washroom without a heated seat and self-washing devices. Many functions are touch-less and with automated voice instructions. Some come with a place to hang your umbrella, shopping bags, and a little baby seat in bathroom stalls for moms (I wonder if the baby seats are installed in men’s washrooms?).  Some come with fake toilet flushing sound to mask the ‘bathroom’ noise—this, I believe, was an invention to prevent people wasting water by flushing the toilet multiple times.

What is adequate?

Can we do it in Canada? Of course, we can. Would it be expensive? Absolutely. The question of feasibility is a tricky one. Governments must gauge the cost of making accessible public washrooms against other competing priorities that the public funds must stretch to meet. Like many other jurisdictions, Japan has also struggled with the question. It seems a tad easier in Japan because there is a ‘market’—if you build it, they will come (by hundreds of thousands every day). To the eyes of an outsider, there seem to be a lot of accessible washrooms wherever you go in Tokyo. On the other hand, Tokyo has 14 million people. How many is adequate for Tokyo? How many is adequate for smaller Canadian cities like Halifax? Who decides what is adequate? Can an optimal washroom-to-population ratio be established? At what population size would such a ratio become unfeasible due to economy of scale? These are the questions that may keep planners awake at night in Japan, Canada, and elsewhere.          

Mikiko goes to Japan in search of accessible public spaces

Japan is a faraway country, and it is somewhat mysterious for many Canadians. Oftentimes Canadian (or western) planners seem to dismiss Japan as too different from their own experience, and therefore, think that many planning endeavors are not easily comparable or relevant. Consequently, we may miss opportunities to explore what is happening in Japan as a source of inspiration for solutions to planning problems, or co-develop strategies that work for both contexts.

This perspective is understandable. Most cities in Japan are ultra-compact, with people living on top of each other in tiny spaces in a way that is unfathomable for many Canadians who are used to having a lot of space inside and outside of their homes. Some design solutions that are seen in Japanese cities may not be preferred by Canadians—e.g., building tiny-footprint high-rise apartments right next to busy train lines to enhance densification and infrastructure efficiency may never get through municipal council meetings. The natural resources used to support the lifestyle of ultimate convenience and comfort in Japan—heated toilet seats, rental office cubicles in train stations, or AI operated cash registers that scan your purchases all at once—seem unnecessary or even wasteful to Canadians.

A starker difference is the population size and density. The sheer number of people versus the size of the land in Japan makes development cost-efficient in a way that is not possible in sparsely populated Canadian cities. The return of investment is a near guarantee with high margins—whatever expensive infrastructure they build, people will use it and gladly pay the fees if required. Canadian cities—with some exception of large cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal—the tax dollars can stretch only so far to make expensive investments for something new and innovative. The number of users may not be sufficient to glean substantial profit. Yes, Canada and Japan are different in many ways. 

As a Japanese-born scholar who has lived in North America for the last 30 years, I notice that the field of planning has missed out a lot by not sufficiently learning from one culture to another that are seemingly very different. The social relationships in which modern day (or post-post-modern day) planning issues take place in different parts of the worlds are, indeed, quite different. But people are people are people, really. The day-to-day challenges in navigating social and (often) political relations, tackling the pandemic of isolation and mental health problems, and creating solutions for aging populations for our sustainable future are, at a fundamental level, very much the same. There is a thing or two that Canadian planners can ponder through a quick peak of a place like Japan.

I will be writing blog posts to showcase some things I found on my trip.

New Video by Accessibility Leaders in Halifax

This recent video by long-time advocate, Vicky Levack, and AMI (Accessible Media Inc.), was released on YouTube on August 26, 2022. It highlights the ongoing need for, and value of, small option housing and other meaningful accessible housing models in Nova Scotia.

This is not a PEACH product. Instead, we are eager to share this valuable production by local accessibility leaders with audiences in planning and other fields whose work influences our shared built environment. Vicky’s Fight For Freedom is a must-see to inform how we build inclusive, livable communities.

Video entitled “Vicky’s Fight for Freedom” embedded from the AMI YouTube channel.

A Campaign to Improve Restaurant Accessibility

During the pandemic, many of us had our first taste of being denied a night out with friends or a quick bite at a local restaurant. But for many Canadians who experience physical, sensory, cognitive, and other impairments, not being able to enter a popular bar, coffee shop, or restaurant has long been a part of their dining experience. Something as simple as the door into a food establishment can be a significant barrier, denying people from not only enjoying these services but also from equitably participating in our communities.  

Orso restaurant's front entrance in Downtown Halifax. Four colourful Cheers! To Access badges are stuck to the glass of the restaurant's front door.
Orso restaurant’s front entrance in Downtown Halifax. Four colourful Cheers! To Access badges are stuck to the glass of the restaurant’s front door.

Since the enactment of the Accessibility Act in 2017, Nova Scotia has been tackling accessibility in public spaces head-on—slowly but surely. Both government and grass-root efforts to prevent and remove barriers in public spaces are emerging. Municipalities are developing their accessibility plans, disability advocacy organizations and community groups are raising public awareness, and accessibility standards are in the process of being developed. But the accessibility of privately owned spaces like food and drink establishments is lagging behind—a missing piece to realising equitable access to social life. Until these places become more accessible, the vision of a fully accessible Nova Scotia by 2030 will not be a reality. 

In the summer of 2021, when restaurants in Nova Scotia began to reopen, we introduced Cheers! To Access to engage with the restaurants of Halifax Regional Municipality on accessibility considerations. The initiative began when PEACH partnered with the creators of The Coast’s Patio Map to document and share key accessibility information about the outdoor patios of HRM restaurants online, as reported by restaurant operators. Since then, the team has begun visiting restaurants and conversing with owners and managers on accessibility indoors. 

A screenshot of The Coast's online patio map.
A screenshot of The Coast’s online patio map.

Cheers! To Access is a badge system that is displayed online and on storefronts via colourful window clings. PEACH members visit participating restaurants to check their eligibility for each badge. The idea is to celebrate accessibility successes in restaurants while talking about what more they could do.  

Cheers! To Access badges for 2021 included a pilot set of accessibility criteria (Image of badges included) covering six basic considerations. For example, challenges experienced by persons with disabilities can begin at getting through the door of a restaurant, where a stepped entrance or narrow doorway may not accommodate persons using a wheelchair or another mobility device. Therefore, an orange badge is given to a restaurant with an entrance that is step-free, unobstructed, and at least 85 cm wide. Once inside, finding a wheelchair-accessible washroom (blue badge), a table of appropriate height for comfortable use with knee clearance (dark green badge), or enough clear space to move about the restaurant freely (light green badge), are important for persons using mobility devices, with service animals, or assisted by caregivers. 

A wheelchair user enters an outdoor single-stall accessible washroom at Stillwell Beergarden.
A wheelchair user enters an outdoor single-stall accessible washroom at Stillwell Beergarden.

Participating restaurant owners have demonstrated a genuine eagerness to learn and improve their businesses to be more inclusive spaces. Even without making changes to its floorplan, there are many things that restaurants can do. Here are some examples: 

Installing light fixtures with brightness levels that can be adjusted higher or lower for each table (or for different sections of your restaurant). This can help customers see their food or companions better, read the menu, or communicate nonverbally. Excess noise can be reduced by introducing soft surfaces and other sound-dampening materials, making the restaurant atmosphere less overwhelming for diners with a variety of sensory and cognitive conditions.  

Offering menus in multiple formats, such as large print, digital, or braille, will be helpful for persons with low or no vision. However, JPEG or PNG files are generally not compatible with read-aloud software. Digital menus are better if uploaded as PDF files. And including pictures of menu items and using icons to communicate information about dishes is helpful for everyone. 

Savvy restaurants are now using pay machines with automated voices to relay audible instructions. Sometimes customers have to use pay machines with physical buttons, and buttons with tactile numbering or lettering or both are very helpful. Silicone overlays may be available as add-ons to adapt touchscreen products and could make all the difference for a customer with limited dexterity or visual impairment.  

The interior of Easy Street Diner where tables are spaced far apart and there is lots of room to maneouvre the aisles.
The interior of Easy Street Diner where tables are spaced far apart and there is lots of room to maneouvre the aisles.

Cheers! To Access is merely a first step to cataloguing the accessibility efforts in the food and drink establishments of HRM and having open conversation about how to make restaurants more inclusive venues for everyone.   

A recent video collaboration between PEACH and Planifax on this initiative interviewed three accessibility experts and advocates in Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia, about basic elements and considerations to enhance accessibility of food establishments for all. You can watch the video below:

If you’re a restaurant owner and would like to receive Cheers! To Access badges, join us with Cheers! To Access 2022. Email PEACH at peach@dal.ca. You are also invited to email PEACH if you are a diner who experiences disability and would like to see a particular barrier addressed through the Cheers! To Access system. Keep an eye out for these badges in the windows of your favourite local food joints and spread the word using #cheerstoaccess. 

Acknowledgement: PEACH Research Unit would like to thank Michelle Mahoney, RHFAC Professional, for her valuable input into the criteria for the first set of Cheers! To Access badges.