Designers are making a more accessible BC

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      By Mihika Agarwal

      Tucked away in a corner of Vancouver’s sprawling BC Place is a small yet immersive space that is designed to engulf visitors’ senses. The walls of the cool, dark room feature glowing neon panels that emit the soothing sound of flowing water. What may initially appear to be textured artworks or optical illusion boards are actually interactive elements, made by medical professionals to help guests shift their focus from the chaos outside to the calming environment inside. BC Place launched this sensory room in September in an effort to increase accessibility and inclusivity for all its guests.

      BC Place’s initiative comes as part of Vancouver’s growing movement to make more opportunities—goods, services, and spaces in the built environment—available that prioritize user accessibility. The effort follows the ratification of the 2021 Accessible British Columbia Act: a mandate that requires more than 750 public sector organizations in BC to form accessibility committees, including members with disabilities. According to the City of Vancouver, more than one in five people in the city have an ongoing disability, with the most reported being pain, mobility, flexibility, sight, and mental health. Now, both government bodies and private homegrown organizations are stepping up to innovate for a barrier-free future.

      The sensory room at BC Place.

      Most recently, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey campus became one of the first and only universities in the province to install an adult changing station in its gender-neutral bathroom. The setup includes an overhead electric lift that can safely transfer wheelchair users to the toilet or the changing table. Stan Leyenhorst, accessibility consultant with KPU and a wheelchair user, lauds the university’s facility managers for looking beyond the BC building code—an insufficient standard for constructed objects in the province, but the only legally enforceable one—and providing meaningful access to those who need it.

      “KPU is very keen to upgrade beyond the building code,” says Leyenhorst, “which is your bare minimum and just not good enough.”

      Earlier this year, Vancouver-based interdisciplinary design studio HCMA created an accessibility-focused art installation for the ongoing Time Space Existence architecture exhibition in Venice, Italy. Holding designers of major cities like New York City, Toronto, and Montreal accountable for their exclusionary architecture, the installation “Who is This For” seeks to “evoke a visceral response that echoes the alienation felt every day as people live out their lives in cities all over the world,” reads the official memo. HCMA is also the firm behind British Columbia’s more progressive and inclusionary spaces. These include Vancouver’s Hillcrest Recreation Centre—featuring equipment for adapted fitness—and Victoria’s Topaz Skate Park, furnished with unique wayfinding signage as well as surfaces and lighting designed for users of all abilities.

      Offering home furniture that fuses modern aesthetics with assistive functions, Cappella Design is another local firm making strides in accessibility. Cappella’s Corbel Adjustable Side Table reimagines the clinical over-the-bed hospital tray, using reclaimed mahogany for a sleek, adjustable table that can be swung into position as needed. The table is currently on display as part of Reclaim + Repair: The Mahogany Project at the Museum of Vancouver.

      Also making inroads into assistive products is the technology startup Seleste, which recently launched one-of-its-kind smart glasses for people with low vision or vision loss. Among other features, the AI-backed glasses offer a camera that allows visually impaired users to share their surroundings with family, friends, or volunteers. And Naqi Logix’s neural earbuds are another recent breakthrough in assistive technology: through an invisible interface, users can control all their digital devices in a touch-free, screen-free, and voice-free environment.

      Despite the slow but sure progress, a lot remains to be done. Essential features like grab bars in shower stalls haven’t made it to the BC building code yet, because developers deem implementation too expensive. Users of HandyDART, TransLink’s shared shuttle for people in need of assistance are dissatisfied; many complain about long wait times, insufficiently trained staff, and restricted access. The city needs many more curb cuts—ramps connecting the sidewalk to the street—and existing ones need repair.

      There seems to be a unanimous consensus in Vancouver’s accessibility and design communities that universal design, not “accessible design,” is the way forward.

      “When you try to implement a solution to a barrier for one person or group with a disability, you actually introduce a barrier to another group,” explains Leyenhorst, who specializes in the emerging design philosophy. Universal design encourages design for everybody regardless of ability, age, class, or other demographics. Even as public and private bodies are gradually embracing universal design as a futuristic guiding blueprint, Leyenhorst believes that city and provincial champions like Rick Hansen, Terry Fox, and Sam Sullivan have already pushed the accessibility profile of BC by a great degree.

      “I always tell people Vancouver is probably the best place in the world to live with a disability,” says Leyenhorst, who has been a wheelchair user in the city for 45 years now. “If you think about it, I can live quite well.”