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2024 Should Bring These New Accessibility Focuses

A photo of a prison, with the only way up each floor by stairs
Ignoring accessibility in these areas comes with costs

BC Disability

Spencer van Vloten

January 18th, 2024

Accessibility has become an increasingly prominent topic over the last few years.

It is one of the leading issues in community design, and cities, provinces and organizations tout their accessibility strategies as evidence of their commitments to inclusion. 

But despite this attention, there are still several areas where accessibility gaps are overlooked, three of which I discuss below.

On the surface, these deficits affect people very differently, but common to each is that continuing to neglect them will lead to a host of consequences felt beyond those immediately impacted.

Crawling up the stairs

Unseen by the rest of society, the accessibility woes of people in correctional facilities get little attention, but there is good reason to be concerned. 

Federally and provincially there have been few accommodations for incarcerated persons with disabilities, notes Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services.

Interpretive services for deaf or hard of hearing persons are close to non-existent, hindering their ability to communicate about the most basic things, let alone navigate legal issues.

Mobility aids like canes and wheelchairs are often kept from those who rely on them, while correctional building layouts have forced inmates with mobility limitations to degrading and desperate measures to get around.

Metcalfe recalls one particularly egregious case.

"In order to get his meals, a man we were working with would have to drag himself up and down stairs because there was no accessible route for him to use."

Access to health care is also limited, contributing to inmates having poorer health than the general public, and there are continual problems in getting incarcerated persons assistive equipment like hearing aids and dentures.

Despite overrepresentation of persons with learning disabilities and low literacy levels, educational programs inside correctional facilities are inflexible, libraries are underfunded and a lack of professionals to run these programs adds to the challenges inmates experience in accessing beneficial support. 

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act has forced prisons to remove many of the barriers discussed above, but there is no equivalently powerful legislation to bring about this change in Canada. 

Some people may be short on sympathy for incarcerated people and others may say the focus should be on establishing community supports to help prevent them from entering correctional facilities in the first place — which I second. 

But as long as people are incarcerated with the prospect of re-entering wider society, it is important they have the best chance possible to live a law-abiding, happy life when released.

Those who can live with dignity and readily access services, treatment programs and education inside correctional facilities are far less likely to offend and be incarcerated in the future, keeping communities safer while potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.

And we can all benefit from that.

Dangerously unprepared

A park flooded, with the only dry area being accessible by stairs
Climate emergencies are increasing

In recent years, wildfires ended lives in northern B.C. and Alberta, flooding led to deaths in Nova Scotia, Quebec and B.C., and heat waves killed hundreds across Western Canada — where the threat of a major earthquake also looms large.

While climate-related disasters are increasing worldwide, the costs are not distributed equally. 

How communities prepare for, respond to and cope with crises reflects who and what they value. 

And people who are already marginalized face additional challenges in disaster situations, with emergency management planning and operations showing limited regard for their needs.

Take people with disabilities. 

They experience four times the fatality rate and greater exclusion during recovery periods, while evacuation rates among households with a disabled family member are up to 25 per cent lower due to inaccessible transportation and lack of accessible shelters. Deaf and blind persons are also among the least likely to evacuate due to a lack of accessible warning messages.

With emergency services being developed for short-sighted conceptions of an “average” person, it is not only disabled people who suffer. 

LGBTQ+ persons face discrimination in the provision of emergency services such as health care and shelter, newcomers with language barriers miss critical warnings, while pregnant women and seniors experience many of the barriers plaguing persons with disabilities. 

And look at the effects: 91 per cent of those who died during the B.C. heat waves had a chronic medical condition or a disability, while similar numbers are found when looking at disasters and humanitarian emergencies globally. 

Although medically vulnerable populations may always be among the most at risk in these situations, there is no need for the loss of life to be as great as it has.

Years of research highlight structured inequalities in the distribution of vulnerability, capacity, and outcomes, yet many provinces and cities have been slow to adapt and members of disadvantaged communities continue bearing the brunt. 

While fatal heat waves of 2021 brought new attention to the issue, it has been cyclical as disasters pass and Canada remains dangerously unprepared — meaning the need to close this accessibility gap is pressing as ever.

Paying the price

A man getting money from a cash machine, which is too high for anyone to use if they use a wheelchair
Financial accessibility has many components

The impacts of poverty are devastating and well-documented, but less discussed are the barriers people face in actually being able to access and use their money. 

The Canadian Standards Association standardized automated banking machines and self-service interactive devices in 2009 but at present, there are no standards to ensure they are all accessible. 

One can still find ATMs that are too high for people using mobility devices or that lack the space for them to fit the front of their device and still reach the keypad. 

There continues to be self-checkout and payment machines without audio instructions, headphone jacks or braille for users with limited vision. 

And the lack of uniformity between devices also means people with intellectual disabilities or those with lower technological literacy — such as seniors — are disadvantaged, having to relearn each time they use a new machine. 

Indeed, evidence shows these populations are slower and make more errors while using financial machines and applications, feel less comfortable using them, are far less likely to use them and have more limited access to them compared to the general population.

Training on these devices is shown to make a difference, but the problems are not restricted to technological know-how. 

Even when completed using paper, the steps many persons with disabilities, seniors and low-income persons must go through to access and maintain their financial supports are notoriously lengthy, convoluted, energy sapping and intrusive — sometimes being intentionally designed as such to deny and reduce applications.

They often require copious amounts of documentation that low-income groups in particular struggle accessing, and the rules around what someone can or cannot do, can or cannot have while receiving benefits can be so confusing that even the people tasked with interpreting these policies are unsure.

For people with disabilities or seniors on fixed incomes, benefits already fall well below the poverty line but the added barriers they face push them even further away from financial independence, contributing to a less-inclusive, economically vibrant and sustainable society.

One to address all?

There are various measures to help close these gaps. 

To name just a few: interpretation services can be expanded at prisons, accessibility committees can be formed specifically to inform emergency response strategies, and training with payment machines and banking applications can be offered for target populations.

To ensure a broad impact, it is also critical to establish standards creating greater consistency in accessibility from place to place, while having powerful mechanisms to enforce them — unfortunately, too often accessibility legislation does not.

Ultimately to get to the root of the problem, accessibility and inclusion must become embedded in our thinking and how we look at public issues, which requires sustained education efforts and a refusal to accept the status quo. 

Only when that happens will they become embedded into the approaches that follow. This will take much longer than a year to achieve, so we might as well get to it.

Spencer van Vloten is a nationally published writer and community advocate from Vancouver. He is a recipient of the BC Medal of Good Citizenship, Vancouver Excellence Award, and was named the Rick Hansen Foundation Difference Maker of the Year.

You can find more of his work at or follow him on X at @SpencerVanCity


Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to!


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