A path runs through cherry blossoms on Burnaby Mountain, James Chen, Shutterstock

Who gets to decide what is accessible—and who does that leave behind?

The City of Burnaby is requiring all bidders on parks projects to have Rick Hansen Foundation certification—but advocates say standards shouldn't be put in the hands of private foundations.

By Dustin Godfrey | August 19, 2021 |4:00 am

Disabilities advocates are decrying a move by the City of Burnaby to require architects and other contractors looking to work with the city to have certification with the Rick Hansen Foundation.

Earlier this summer, city staff noted in a report to the parks, recreation, and culture commission that the parks department is working to improve accessibility in parks and trails.

“Following the principles of universal design, we strive to make our parks usable to the greatest extent possible, by everyone,” director of parks, recreation, and cultural services Dave Ellenwood wrote in the report.

Standards for accessibility at parks facilities, according to the report, are sourced from a combination of provincial and national regulations, including the BC Housing Code and the Canadian Landscape Architecture Association’s design standards for accessibility.

The report goes on to note that the city doesn’t have a direct relationship with the Rick Hansen Foundation, but an access advisory committee in the city is in touch with the foundation “semi-regularly.”

“Approximately 2 years ago, leadership from the Rick Hansen Foundation met with the mayor to inquire if the City would certify its corporate facilities; however, at the time there was substantial fee associated with the process, and it was not pursued,” Ellenwood wrote.

“Going forward, however, all new civic projects require Rick Hansen training/certification as criteria in its RFP [request for proposals] process for consultants/architects of new civic facilities, including the current recreation centre projects. This means that the Rick Hansen certification lens is applied to Burnaby civic projects.”

But advocates say this wrongly forces architects to patronize a foundation they say relieves pressure on senior levels of government to develop their own stricter rules for accessibility.

“It is exceedingly inappropriate and quite troubling,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, who described his organization as “among the leading voices you’ll see being quoted publicly as raising concerns about the RHF certification process and certifier training.”

And the issue draws questions about how accessibility should be regulated—by market forces, such as certifications drawn up by private foundations, or by public entities.

The City of Burnaby did not respond to requests for comment.

What is the Rick Hansen Foundation?

A statue of Rick Hansen at Rogers Arena in Vancouver before it was moved to the Vancouver General Hospital
A statue of Rick Hansen at Rogers Arena in Vancouver before it was moved to the Vancouver General Hospital. (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The foundation was launched in the late 1980s as the Man in Motion World Tour Society by Rick Hansen, a paraplegic wheelchair user following a spinal cord injury at age 15 after he completed his famous 26-month Man in Motion World Tour.

The Paralympian’s 40,000-km wheelchair marathon, inspired by Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, covered 34 countries and earned Hansen broad recognition, including the Order of Canada and the Order of BC.

And the momentum of that tour carried into the foundation, whose original aim, according to its website, was “to raise money to improve the lives of people with disabilities and to support SCI research.”

The Rick Hansen Foundation has been the vessel for a number of accessibility investments, doling out grants on behalf of governments, and in 2017, it launched a certification program to rate buildings for accessibility. Since then, the foundation has sent evaluators to over 1,300 sites to determine an accessibility rating—certification requires 60% compliance, as well as full compliance with mandatory requirements, while a gold certification requires 80% compliance.

Of the 1,300-plus sites assessed, over 850 have received certification, while just over 70 have received gold certification.

Just last week, the federal government—ahead of an election call—announced a $7.5-million investment into the foundation to “establish a new standardized profession of ‘accessibility professionals,’ which will increase expertise and information on how to build accessible spaces in a way that includes people of all abilities.”

What’s the problem?

In recent years, while the foundation has managed to elicit the praise of governments, it has also drawn the ire of many accessibility advocates.

Advocates say various governments have come to rely too heavily on RHF’s certification program, effectively privatizing accessibility. And they say the program takes pressure off of governments to develop adequate accessibility legislation with teeth to enforce compliance.

Lepofsky pointed in particular to a move by the Ontario government to give Rick Hansen Foundation $1.3 million to do certification inspections on 250 buildings.

“They pointed to this, in multiple statements, when points are made publicly that they are not making progress on accessibility in anywhere near the way we need it,” Lepofsky said, adding the certification “proves nothing other than a PR gesture.”

“It’s a waste of money, but a lot of money for a photo op smokescreen to make it look like they’re doing something, so they can point to it and hope that that gets some good media.”

Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy analyst in Vancouver, said she has been frustrated with the level of interest RHF has gotten from governments and the private sector, particularly around its certification program.

“Accessibility is essentially, and should be, understood in terms of the built environment and the conditions of the built environment,” she said. “It’s sort of akin to a fire code, [or] health policy. So if you don’t follow the fire code, you can be shut down. Your business licence can be taken away. That’s my ideal situation.”

Filling the gaps

Rick Hansen Foundation bills its certification program as something that’s intended to fill the gaps not addressed by legislation, saying it agrees that the government also needs to take a role in the issue.

“RHF does not disagree with the position that there should be government regulation, however we do not see this as being mutually exclusive to our program. Both can exist. It’s important to have both enabling legislation and harmonized national codes and standards and a complementary national certification program that uses consistent methodology and recognizes industry leadership,” the foundation wrote in a statement to Burnaby Beacon.

“Legislation alone is not enough, according to a report from the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance (CDPA), public and private collaboration is essential.”

The foundation also pointed to a study by HCMA Architecture + Design that showed building to the national and Ontario building codes would get a building 35% and 42% respectively on the RHF certification rating.

“RHFAC was developed on national and international standards and research demonstrating best practices in accessibility. The program has been reviewed by a broad scope of stakeholders,” the foundation said, listing major disabilities organizations, a technical committee of private and public officials, and an advisory committee made up of city planners and operators of commercial spaces.

"People are always ready to tell us if they disagree with us—I’ve heard absolutely no one come to [RHF’s] defence."

Photo: EB Adventure Photography, Shutterstock

But Peters said accessibility should be defined by the public, through public institutions, comparing it to a fire code or food safety regulations.

“If you could just imagine putting those things into a privatized situation, I think you can imagine the myriad of problems that could occur. You don’t have to follow the fire code; you have to follow Dustin’s privately developed rules of fires,” Peters said.

“That would be a big problem, because it shouldn’t be up to Dustin to decide. It should be up to the fire department and the fire marshal to decide. It should be up to a health authority, which is publicly accountable and publicly run. And the same with accessibility.”

Legislation being implemented

BC and Canada have both recently passed accessibility legislation, including the Accessible Canada Act in 2019 and the Accessible BC Act signed in June this year.

The federal legislation only applies to federal agencies and federally regulated institutions in the private sector, such as banks, airlines, broadcasting and cross-provincial transportation.

Meanwhile, it’s still unclear how BC’s law will apply, with implementation taking place over 10 years. Its focuses over the next decade will include culture change, accountability requirements for BC government, monitoring and evaluation, and standards development.

As it stands, there’s little recourse for anyone with a disability in BC who can’t access services or even basics like curb cuts—ramps at the corners of sidewalks to allow wheelchairs and others to easily get onto the road—beyond going to the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

But advocates’ issues with RHF’s certification program aren’t just about who should be responsible for standardizing accessibility—they have concerns about the methodology and scope of the program.

‘We’ve been very public about this’

Peters said Rick Hansen Foundation has gained a particularly strong foothold in BC, where it’s based, often acting as a vessel for government grant money.

But that hasn’t been the case everywhere—Lepofsky said RHF doesn’t have the same standing in Ontario.

When Doug Ford’s government gave $1.3 million to RHF, Lepofsky’s coalition listed 17 concerns they have with RHFAC and with the Ontario government’s funding announcement. And his organization wasn’t the only one that pushed back on the funding announcement.

The Toronto Star’s editorial board penned a condemnation of the move, citing a number of similar qualms to Lepofsky’s concerns.

“People are always ready to tell us if they disagree with us—I’ve heard absolutely no one come to [RFH’s] defence,” Lepofsky said.

“Our positions are informed by feedback we get on an ongoing basis. … We’ve been very public about this, and I’ve had nobody from within the disability community pushing back and saying, ‘You’re wrong; this is a great thing.’”

Lepofsky’s concerns about RHF certification range from conflict of interest concerns to the short training period involved to the methodology around its ratings.

“If the Hansen folks go in and say something’s accessible, all you’ve got to do is move a garbage can in the path of travel, and that’s over. They get the label, they get the sign up [on the] front of their building, but it doesn’t mean anything,” Lepofsky said.

Lepofsky further took issue with the suggestion that RHF certification pushes building design beyond the bare minimum, with the implication that the building code is the minimum.

“The minimum is the human rights code of the Charter of Rights. So what Mr. Hansen and the foundation talk about is encouraging people to go beyond the minimum, grossly understating what the minimum is, and then applauding people for doing better than that substandard requirement,” Lepofsky said.

Human rights complaint

In fact, Lepofsky and Peters both pointed to a couple of notable shortcomings by Rick Hansen Foundation.

Last year, Pat Quinn’s Restaurant & Bar in Tsawwassen settled a human rights complaint filed against it by a wheelchair user, despite the building—and restaurant—having accessibility certification from the Rick Hansen Foundation.

And in 2018, the foundation awarded YVR Airport a gold certification. The problem, they said, is where they held the photo op—at a set of “hangout steps” or stepped seating, a feature that is loved by architects but derided by accessibility advocates.

“The very picture where they’re portraying it had a barrier in the picture,” Lepofsky said. “This is a design, a thing that should never take place. And here, [RHF is] not only giving them a gold, … but they’re giving them a gold [with hangout steps] in the picture. This is just proof positive of a complete bungle. So that’s a huge problem.”

RHF did not address a question about the YVR approval directly but said in an email statement that ratings provide “a ‘snapshot’ of the overall accessibility of their facilities.”

“Certification does not equal perfection. Using their scorecards, organizations are able to identify which areas have scored well and which areas require improvements in a simple and easily understood format,” the foundation said.

Rick Hansen Foundation awards YVR Airport a gold certification, with a photo op at hangout stairs in the airport.
Rick Hansen Foundation awards YVR Airport a gold certification, with a photo op at hangout stairs in the airport—a feature that is derided by disabilities advocates. (Rick Hansen Foundation, Facebook)

And that gets to another point of contention many within the disability community have with the RHF certification program: a sense that it may offer a photo op and a plaque for the sake of PR without actually being adequately accessible.

For Peters, a big part of the issue is transparency around how the certification process is done. The foundation has a public checklist on its website, indicating the different factors that are considered in its accessibility certification test, and how they’re weighted. But when a business says it’s RHF certified, it’s not clear what that means.

The word “certification” is a misnomer, according to Lepofsky.

“They don’t certify anything. It’s not like you get a certificate that is now a defence to a human rights complaint. It’s not,” Lepofsky said.

Who certifies the certifiers?

Part of the issue, according to Thea Kurdi, an Ontario-based accessibility and universal design consultant with DesignAble who has been involved in writing accessibility standards, is how much training RHF certifiers get—just 10 days.

“If you’re doing an audit, none of my staff members are allowed to go out and do that independently for 2 years. We take 2 years to train people to make sure that they really understand what they’re doing,” Kurdi said.

That can pose a problem when many parts of the checklist are discretionary—each point is ranked on a scale—rather than simple yes or no questions.

In its written statement, RHF noted that its certification process does have prerequisites for its training, including a diploma in architecture, engineering, or urban planning, or a minimum of 5 years’ experience related to accessibility in buildings.

“Furthermore, RHFAC ratings are reviewed by an independent adjudication process,” the foundation said. Despite this, we agree that the 2-week RHFAC training course is not sufficient to provide students with enough knowledge to consider themselves experts in the application of universal design,” the foundation said.

“However, it does change the way industry professionals see the built environment, help them to see barriers they didn’t see before, and to challenge the assumption that meeting code is equal to providing real access for people with disabilities.”

A focus on spinal cord injuries

One issue Kurdi, Lepofsky and Peters all noted were around where Rick Hansen Foundation’s focus has been for much of its existence. The foundation was originally created to raise money for spinal cord research, “which is a really important endeavour,” Kurdi said.

But all 3 said the foundation’s focus skews toward a specific type of disability—wheelchair users.

“While [the certification program] does talk about other types of disabilities, we have noticed—because we’ve been asked to review it for several clients to see, does that make sense for them to use—I find it’s still wheelchair-centric,” Kurdi said.

Peters noted one particular RHF point that suggested facilities use aromatic plants as a form of wayfinding assistance for people who are blind or have low vision. This, she said, ignores the existence of winter and the fact that accessibility includes accommodating people with scent sensitivities and allergies.

“RHFAC uses them as an example of an olfactory wayfinding clue for a building entrance but does not suggest their use in parks,” the foundation said in response to a question about the suggestion.

“We continue to value ongoing input from the community, and will discuss the feedback regarding aromatic plants with our Technical Advisory Committee during the development of RHFAC v4.0.”

Kurdi said: “I love it when people are trying to bring attention to accessibility and when they’re trying to move things going down the whole line. But I think people really need to understand the difference between a certification program and, for example, a building audit.”

A certification program can be a “fun way to celebrate accessibility and then raise awareness as a central improvement,” Kurdi said, but she noted some limitations.

“I don’t think that this really captures what’s required under the human rights code, and it certainly doesn’t encompass what we’re recommending in the accessible built environment industry.”

The foundation said its goal has, for 33 years, been to remove barriers for people with disabilities and to increase awareness of accessibility, along with its focus on spinal cord injury research.

“One of the most fundamental barriers that people with disabilities face is the lack of physical accessibility in the places we live, work, learn, and play. A key priority for RHF is to improve accessibility for people with physical disabilities affecting their mobility, vision, and hearing,” RHF said.

Laws with teeth

A person in a wheelchair uses a curb cut at a crosswalk.
Curb cuts are one basic area of accessibility that Gabrielle Peters says is woefully lacking in Metro Vancouver. (phaustov, Shutterstock)

Peters highlighted the Americans with Disabilities Act south of the border as an example of doing accessibility better than in Canada.

While Canada’s and BC’s laws have just been passed in the last couple of years, the ADA has been in place for 3 decades now. And while Peters said it isn’t perfect by any means, it’s still much stronger than existing legislation in Canada.

And a key issue, she noted, is how effective it is as a law—if something isn’t ADA compliant, a person can sue. This is what happened south of the border with curb cuts—and that bears results.

The City of Portland recently settled a class-action lawsuit filed against it by committing to creating 1,500 curb cuts per year.

In Vancouver, Peters said the city has 8,000 corners without curb cuts, and when she sat on that city’s transportation council, the projected completion date was 200 years out.

Here in Burnaby, meanwhile, many residential roads don’t have sidewalks, and the city even cancelled a sidewalks project at the behest of local families.

Free resources

Peters said one of her main issues with the Rick Hansen Foundation’s certification program is the price—described by the city in its own report as “substantial”—and the barriers that adds.

This, she said, makes the process inaccessible to people who could consult on disabilities, drawing from lived experience and community consultations but who don’t have RHF training.

“It makes me very sad that this is being turned into a money-making opportunity that seems to be replicating some of the [existing] oppressions and hierarchy,” Peters said.

All the while, she said, there are free resources the city could draw from for its parks facilities.

Because it’s publicly regulated, the ADA’s guidelines are freely available, including standards specific to parks. Peters said the guidelines aren’t comprehensive but still are more so than those from RHF, also pointing to more guidelines freely available from the City of Malibu in California.

Watch for our companion piece to this article coming on Friday, August 20, where a local resident offers some challenges around—and solutions for—accessibility in Burnaby’s parks facilities.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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