Charles Olfert is enthusiastic about creating buildings that meet their users’ needs. A principal architect with AODBT Architecture + Interior Design, he recently applied that passion to the study of accessibility.
Olfert attended the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification training program held in Calgary between April 24 and May 11. The course included simulation exercises to teach participants what it might be like to live with a particular limitation. In addition to the requirements of people with mobility challenges, it addressed the needs of those with hearing and visual impairments, as well as with anxiety and other mental-health issues.
“It’s a more-positive approach to accessibility rather than [the] punitive approach [found in] building codes,” he says.
It’s an approach that Olfert, who attends Wildwood Mennonite Church in Saskatoon, thinks churches should pay attention to. In the past, many churches responded to a member becoming disabled with what he calls “back-door half-measures”—literally building a ramp on the back of the church building.
Olfert sees accessibility as a growing trend in architecture and design. “As baby boomers get older, they’re going to be much more demanding,” he says, so accessibility needs will increase and the church would do well to pay attention.
“One really important principle [in accessibility] is to [be able to] come in the front door,” he says. “Maybe consider an outdoor lift or changing the landscaping,” he adds. Other ideas for churches include putting up handrails, installing a bench partway to the door, having seating with armrests available and having good lighting.
He advises churches to think about accessibility any time they look at making significant changes to their buildings. Always, he says, “think about sight, hearing and mental health.”
People with visual impairments, for instance, benefit from having “a clear delineation between floor and wall” and “highlights in terms of colour,” he says. Items in a room should be cane-detectable for those who are blind. It’s a good idea to put a water fountain in an alcove, he says.
Absorbent materials are helpful in meeting the needs of those with hearing impairment, because echoes and background noise can make it harder to hear conversation. It is also essential to have hearing assistance available. For the deaf, visual clues become particularly important, he says, adding, the ability to see movement is vital, and transparency can help with that.
“The mental-health [issue] was a big revelation to me,” says Olfert. “It’s particularly important with regard to orientation.” He explains that entering an unfamiliar building may make a person with anxiety feel distressed. Being able to see where to park, where the entrance is and how to use the parking machine can all help to make an anxious person feel more comfortable.
For those with mobility challenges, a variety of seating is essential, as are wider doorways and corridors for wheelchair access.
“Washrooms are especially important,” Olfert says. Even small details, such as easy-to-operate door locks, can make a big difference. A lock that indicates whether a washroom is vacant or in use is a good idea for those who are hearing impaired, he says.
More than just accessible churches
Olfert says a universal-design approach can make facilities accessible to everyone. This includes housing. “Most houses have steps,” he says, “and a lot of spaces are wasted in drywall partitions.” An accessible house might have hooks on the wall instead of a closet in the front entrance, for example. Being accessible could increase a home’s value, he adds.
Although retrofitting can be more costly than building an accessible structure from scratch, there are easy ways to make existing buildings more accessible, he says.