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The art of accessibility

“Everything we do in this new hospital is going to be assessed against accessibility”

When it opens in 2028, every day, thousands of patients, staff and visitors will come to The Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic Campus. When they arrive, clear, intuitive wayfinding will make it easy to move through the buildings. Patients will communicate with families, friends, even their clinical teams, through smart televisions sets in their rooms. Accessible washrooms, clinical areas, public spaces, and staff areas will be welcoming and comfortable for everyone, for people of all abilities.

“By ensuring that the space is designed to meet the needs of all  people, we can improve the   experience of staying, visiting or working at the new hospital, and remove unnecessary stress,” said Marnie Peters, Accessibility expert on the GBA Project Advisory Team for the new Civic development.

“No matter someone’s age, abilities or body size, we have to be able to accommodate them,” added Marnie, a world-renowned expert in creating accessible spaces, and a former gold medalist in the Sydney Paralympics for wheelchair basketball. “We need to design to accommodate the complexity of the human condition – including accommodations that people may not always associate with accessibility.”

This means that the Project Advisory Team needs to think beyond  meeting building codes and strive for “universal accessibility,” a design approach that assumes people will come to the new hospital with a range of abilities, which need to be accommodated in a wide range of accessible building features and equipment to be used by everyone.

The latest advances in accessibility technology will be applied to the new hospital, including new age-communication devices that accommodate persons with hearing loss, speech and communication disabilities. Each patient room will have a smart television that will facilitate video relay services, medical charting, and even sign language interpretation.

“I am the accessibility expert, but accessibility is not my job. It’s the whole team’s job,” Marnie stated. “It needs to be in our DNA as part of every decision the team makes.”

Serge Falardeau is The Ottawa Hospital’s Accessibility Coordinator.

Serge Falardeau is The Ottawa Hospital’s Accessibility Coordinator.

Serge Falardeau, The Ottawa Hospital’s Accessibility Coordinator, has worked on many projects aiming to improve accessibility at The Ottawa Hospital’s campuses. He said he finds it inspiring that a focus on accessible design is now incorporated into each of the planning and design phases of the new Civic development.

“When accessibility is an afterthought, it is very costly to try to retrofit the design to correct it. In some cases, it’s impossible to correct, and that means our goal to be as inclusive as possible is compromised,” Serge said.

“With a project of this magnitude and importance, we want to get it right from the beginning, “he added. “To ensure access to excellence in health care for all, we need to use that accessibility lens to continue to identify, remove and prevent new barriers.”

People who come into the hospital should be in an environment where they can focus on their care, on visiting their loved ones, or on their work, added Marnie. They shouldn’t have to request special accommodation or expend any emotional stress worrying about whether the equipment in an exam room will meet their needs, or if they’ll be able to locate an accessible washroom.

“If every washroom is accessible, then you no longer have to worry about whether someone is giving you directions to a washroom you can’t actually use,” said Marnie. “Universal accessibility brings back human dignity, for everyone.”

Designing for universal accessibility also improves the experience for people who live with multiple types of disability. In a facility built to today’s modern building codes, for example, someone who is recovering from a concussion might still become nauseous when looking at a busy flooring pattern. Someone who has hearing loss might not hear his or her name being called in a busy waiting room, causing an appointment to be missed.  Disabilities come in many forms and functions, both visible and invisible.

“People with disabilities are everywhere, and they strive to do everything, and be part of what life has to offer.  There was a time when society may have considered the patient in the wheelchair as disabled, but that is only a glimpse of reality.  People with disabilities are also visiting loved ones. They’re nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and volunteers.  They are staff members at The Ottawa Hospital,” added Marnie.

“The new Civic development is taking a holistic look at accessibility to plan, design, and operate the most inclusive and user-friendly hospital anywhere in the world. Our goal is to meet the needs of the whole region we serve, when we open in 2028 and well into the future.”