Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities
The Wynne Government’s Plan for a New Courthouse in Downtown Toronto Has Significant Accessibility Problems – Yet In the 2014 Election, the Wynne Government Promised Never to Use Public Money to Create New Disability Barriers
April 9, 2018
Here is more proof that Ontario needs strong new action now to ensure that our built environment becomes accessible to people with disabilities.
Back on October 5, 2017, the AODA Alliance wrote Ontario’s Attorney General, to raise serious concerns about the Wynne Government’s plans to build a huge new courthouse in the middle of downtown Toronto, without effectively ensuring that this facility has full accessibility for court participants and attendees with disabilities. As a result of our efforts, on March 14, 2018, the Government commendably held a consultation on the proposed design for this courthouse, with representatives from the disability community, including from the AODA Alliance. At this meeting, the Government shared the drawings for this new courthouse which the Government has selected after a competitive bidding process.
At this meeting, the disability community representatives quickly identified a number of significant accessibility problems with the proposed design of the building. On April 6, 2018, the AODA Alliance again wrote the Attorney General for Ontario. We set out that letter below. In it, we describe a number of the serious accessibility problems that the Government was told about at this consultation meeting. The Attorney General has not yet responded to our earlier October 5, 2017 letter. We await word from the Government on what it plans to do to alter the design of the New Toronto Courthouse to address our accessibility concerns. Our feedback is now being studied.
Several important points spring from this incident. First, contrary to its 2014 election promises, the Government is not effectively ensuring that it will not use public money to create new disability barriers. Second this is further proof that Ontario needs a strong new strategy to address disability barriers in Ontario’s built environment more generally. We need AODA standards and the Ontario Building Code’s accessibility provisions substantially improved. Third, we need Ontario’s design professionals, like architects, to receive substantially improved professional training on disability and accessibility, to avoid problems like this new court’s design.
This striking example of accessibility problems shows why we need all of Ontario’s political parties to make the specific commitments that we seek in the upcoming June 7, 2018 Ontario general election. Check out the AODA Alliance’s April 3, 2018 letter to the party leaders, seeking their accessibility pledges. Urge candidates in your riding to make the pledges we seek.
For a broader perspective on the disability accessibility barriers in Ontario’s built environment, and what the Government needs to do about it, read our April 3, 2018 letter to Ontario’s Accessibility Minister Tracy MacCharles.
At the end of this update, we give links to further background on our accessibility campaign, and information on how to sign up for or unsubscribe from these AODA Alliance Updates.
Text of the AODA Alliance’s April 6, 2018 Letter to the Attorney General of Ontario
ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
1929 Bayview Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario M4G 3E8
Email firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @aodaalliance www.aodaalliance.org
April 6, 2018
To: The Honourable Yasir Naqvi, Attorney General of Ontario
Via email: Yasir.email@example.com
Ministry of the Attorney General
720 Bay Street, 11th Floor
Toronto, ON M7A 2S9
Re: Ensuring Accessibility for People with Disabilities at the Forthcoming New Toronto Courthouse
We write to again raise serious concerns about the Government’s plans for ensuring full accessibility for people with disabilities at the major new Toronto Courthouse, which the Ontario Government is planning for the heart of downtown Toronto. We initially wrote you to raise our accessibility concerns on October 5, 2017. We have received some very limited and preliminary information from your Ministry in response to our letter since then, but no response from you.
Since our October 5, 2017 letter, our concerns about accessibility problems with this courthouse have substantially grown. On March 14, 2018, on our recommendation, your Ministry commendably convened a three hour consultation with representatives from the disability community. We were presented with the drawings submitted during the competitive procurement process for the New Toronto Courthouse, from the successful bidder for this project. This was the first time that people from the disability community were invited to be consulted at any stage on this courthouse’s actual requirements or design. Present at this meeting, in addition to the invited disability advisory group, were representatives from the Ministry of the Attorney General, from Infrastructure Ontario, from the company that won the bid to design and build this courthouse, from two different accessibility consultant firms, and a host of others. There appeared to be at least four architects in the room.
In summary, the winning design drawings for this courthouse, from the successful bidder, have many serious accessibility problems. It is deeply disturbing that this project has proceeded this far, with such accessibility problems, despite Government commitments to ensure its accessibility. This suggests that there have been significant failures at multiple levels within the Government and among those the Government has hired to design and build this courthouse.
In this letter, we summarize a list of some of the key concerns, voiced at this meeting. The lead architect from the presentation team candidly admitted several times that some of the problems identified by the disability consultation group were issues he had not thought of before this meeting. This suggests that the Government did not ensure through the competitive bidding process that a design that was actually accessible and a company with sufficient experience and expertise in disability accessibility was selected through the procurement process.
The following issues include some of the significant accessibility concerns and mistakes that were raised at this meeting.
1. Lobby Staircase
The main foyer has a two-storey major staircase with open risers. We emphasized that open risers on stairs are a tripping hazard for many, e.g. people with vision loss. We were told that open risers had been included because of the feeling of light and openness that they create. Yet anything that creates a disability barrier cannot be justified just because it looks pretty. This wrongly makes aesthetics a priority over accessibility.
There are only six elevators for hundreds of members of the public to reach fully 53 or so courtrooms on 15 of the 17 floors in this building. We understand that as many as 1,200 to 1,500 people are expected to come to this building each day. With only six elevators, many will likely have to spend quite some time waiting for elevators. More elevators are needed.
The elevators are planned to be in two sets of three, facing each other. The ground floor hallway with these six elevators will be open at both ends. We explained that this presents a serious navigation problem especially for people with vision loss. When they get off the elevator, they won’t know whether to turn left or right to make their way to the main entrance. It is far better for the hallway to be closed at one end, if two sets of three elevators are to be facing each other across a hallway.
Having the two sets of three elevators on opposite sides of that hall may shorten the travel distance to the elevator that has arrived for those with some mobility disabilities. However, it presents a problem for people with hearing loss. If you stand with your back to one set of elevators, you can only see when three of the six elevators arrive. It would be better if all six elevators were side by side along one wall.
The advisory group agreed that it was good that the design does not include “destination elevators.” These present serious accessibility problems for many people with disabilities. In a destination elevator system, one doesn’t push a floor button on the elevator. You must instead find a button panel and push the button for your destination before you board an elevator. Then you have to find that specific elevator that will take you to that floor, not just the first elevator that shows up. It is a confusing system that many don’t know how to use and many don’t want to use.
3. Accessible Parking
Currently, there are only plans for the public to have access to six accessible street parking spots outside the building, three on the east side and three on the west side. This is a modest improvement from the earlier plans to have no accessible parking whatsoever available for the public. However, two problems remain.
First, for a courthouse with so many people attending each day, more than six accessible parking spots will be needed to serve the people with disabilities among 1,500 court attendees per day. Second, because these six spots are public street parking spots, anyone with a disability parking permit can use these parking spaces, whether or not they are going to court. There is no assurance that any of these parking spots will be available for the people with disabilities who are going to court.
4. Accessible Route to this Courthouse from Nearby Accessible Parking
There is no public parking on the courthouse site. The nearest major parking facility that is being anticipated for courthouse visitors to use is the parking lot under the new City Hall, southwest of the new courthouse building. According to Google, that is at least a 350 meter walk from the new courthouse. At this meeting, I asked the design team if there is an accessible path of travel from the New City Hall parking lot to the front door of this proposed new courthouse. I was told that they would have to look into this. It is troubling that this was not something that had already been explored by your Ministry and whoever else took part in selecting this site for the new courthouse.
5. Where the Building is Located on the Site
The new courthouse building will have roads passing by it on three sides, the east, west and south. To the north of the building is a hotel.
The courthouse building is planned to be set far back from the street that is on its south perimeter. This means that anyone who is dropped off on Armory Street (on the lot’s south perimeter) must walk more of a distance to reach the courthouse’s main entrance. From an accessibility perspective, it is far better for the building to be located close to each of the three perimeter roads. Instead, the building is planned to be situated at the north end of the lot, leaving a large plaza in front of the building. If that building were instead situated closer to the south end of the lot, next to Armory Street, this would also make room at the north side of the building for at least some dedicated accessible public parking spots. This wouldn’t meet the entire needs parking for people with disabilities going to court. However, it would provide some help.
The building’s first three floors have a large atrium design with lots of multi-floor windows. This design presents a number of accessibility problems.
All that glass can create extensive glare and variations in the amount of light during different times of the day. This presents serious problems for people with low vision, as well as people with sensory integration issues.
The multi-floor atrium produces difficult acoustics, because of the echo created by all the hard surfaces. This presents problems for people who are hard of hearing, people with vision loss (who use sound to assist in navigating), as well as for people with some cognitive or sensory integration disabilities.
As part of this atrium design, there will be courtrooms on the second and third floors, with a multi-story drop-off, presumably protected by a railing. This is a problem for people with height-related phobias. It can also be a safety concern. People in criminal courtrooms can become angry and agitated, with that anger spilling out into the nearby hallway. Floor-to-ceiling barriers by the railings would help avert the risk of anyone being pushed over a railing during a rage.
7. Locating Court Services Office on the Third Floor
An important destination for many coming to the court will be the court services office. Yet the Court Services office is planned to be situated up on the third floor, instead of locating it where the public enters on the first floor. This means that people will have to make their way up two floors, via stairs, escalators, or the busy elevators, just to reach this important first stop in their trip to the court.
8. Wheel-Trans and Street Drop-off Spaces
We were told that the design includes a Wheel-Trans drop-off space in the drop-off area on the building’s east side along Chestnut Street. We were also told that this location had been set by the City of Toronto. The project is in negotiations with the City to switch this to the courthouse’s west side on Centre Avenue so that it would be much closer to the courthouse’s main entrance. Having a drop-off spot on the building’s west side for people with disabilities is quite problematic.
I asked the project architect how many drop-off spaces were included in the drop-off area. He did not know. From the drawings, he had to estimate that there would be six spots.
These spaces, in addition to being Wheel-Trans drop-off and pick up spaces, could be used by everyone, not just people with disabilities. There is no way to ensure that any of those spaces will be actually available at any time for Wheel-Trans vehicles or for other vehicles there to pick up or drop off people with disabilities.
It is troubling that this design layout was approved through the bidding process, without a clear definition of how many drop-off spots would be required for this building. It is also troubling that so many years of planning have gone by, without having yet ensured that the Wheel-Trans drop-off space would be required to be nearest to the building’s main door.
People with disabilities can have to wait for half an hour for a Wheel-Trans ride. I asked if there would be a heated shelter outside near these drop-off spots, or if there is a direct line-of-sight position at the building’s entrance doors for waiting indoors close to the Wheel-Trans drop-off spots. We were told that it was not something that the successful bidder had specifically identified. It was unclear to us if this was a project requirement.
9. Accessible Washrooms
We were told that there would be one accessible sized stall in the main public washroom on each floor of the courthouse. However there would be only one universal washroom on every third floor. We pointed out that this is insufficient.
We emphasized that there should be a universal washroom on every floor. One accessible stall in a public washroom on each floor is not enough. If it is in use, by a person with or without a disability, someone using a mobility assistive device would have to wait for the busy elevators to go to another floor and hope that the universal washroom was not in use there.
This is made worse by the fact, noted above, that there are only six public elevators to service the seventeen floors of this building. The greatest demand for the washrooms will come when courts take mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. These are typically taken by all the courts at around the same time. Courts only allow a few minutes during these breaks. People with disabilities using existing courtrooms have reported real problems at other courthouses, getting from court to an accessible washroom, waiting in lines, and then getting back to court before their case resumes.
10. Accessible Interview Rooms
We were told that there would only be one accessible interview room on each floor of this courthouse. With so many courtrooms in operation, we made it clear that all interview rooms should be accessible. Nothing would prevent people without disabilities from occupying the one accessible interview room on a floor.
11. Tactile Way-Finding
There was no indication of any plans for tactile way-finding, outside across the large open plaza or throughout the building, e.g. through the large open area in the atrium on the main floor. This accessibility feature is essential for people with vision loss, and helpful for people with certain learning and or cognitive disabilities.
12. Consistent Layout on Each Floor
We described the need to ensure that the layout on each floor is the same, as much as possible, and that room numbering is consistent from floor to floor. For example, Courtroom 501 should be in the same position on the 5th floor as is Courtroom 601 on the 6th floor.
There should also be similar tactile way-finding on each floor, guiding people from the elevator to each of the courtrooms, washrooms, etc. This is needed to allow for independent navigation in a busy environment and to avoid confusion when navigating on different floors in the building.
At several other points in the building design, disability representatives pointed out a problem of so many large windows bringing in outside light. They pointed out the need to design the building so that there is a consistent amount of light, and shading or blinds to avoid glare.
14. Lack of Proper Colour Contrast
Feedback was also given that there were a number of instances in the design drawings where there was a lack of proper colour contrast for key features. Colour contrast is well-known as an accessibility feature needed by people with low vision as well as people with various other disabilities.
As for the design of actual courtrooms, we were told that when needed, an accessible prisoner’s box could be brought in. We pointed out that it is far better to design key features in the courtroom to themselves be accessible, i.e. instead of designing a prisoner’s box known to be inaccessible. That is essential to the principle of universal design. The Government’s Multi-Year Accessibility Plan under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act commits to using principles of universal design in new Government infrastructure such as this.
We were told that this building’s courtrooms were designed to the standard that has been used for many years, back to 1999. Yet the Government was advised over a decade ago in the 2007 final report of the Weiler Committee on courts accessibility that it is important for a new and current standard for court accessibility to be created. It is wrong for a courthouse in 2018 to be designed to meet an outdated 1999 accessibility standard or guideline.
16. Space, Sight Lines and Lighting to Accommodate Sign Language interpreters in Courtrooms
We asked what had been included in the design of each courtroom to accommodate Sign Language interpreters for deaf court participants. We pointed out the need for space for interpreters to stand in the right position, depending on whether they are interpreting for a witness, an accused in the prisoner’s box, counsel, or some other court participant. We described the need for proper lighting and sight lines.
It was evident that the project team were not aware of this, nor had they considered it. This suggests to us that this was not a design requirement. When we first raised this issue, we were told about features in the courtroom for hearing loops and sound uplifts. Those relate to people who are hard of hearing and not people who are deaf or deafened. We were also told about centralized facilities in the building for interpreters, to be connected to each courtroom. This obviously must have been meant for other spoken language interpreters, and not for Sign Language interpreters. It would be obvious to anyone with working knowledge about Sign language interpretation in courts that the interpreter should be located in the courtroom, in the line of sight for the deaf person who uses Sign Language.
17. Access to the Courthouse from Public Transit
It is not clear that there is assured to be an accessible path of travel from the nearest subway stations to this courthouse’s main entrance, that there will be proper way-finding markings on this route, and that there will be plans in place to ensure it is always kept clear of snow and other obstacles. This is an issue, given the distance from the nearest TTC stations and stops.
It was important that this recent consultation took place. It revealed substantial accessibility problems with the winning design that your Ministry has selected through the competitive bid process. It was evident that the successful bidder has insufficient knowledge of accessibility needs of people with disabilities. We brought to their attention that accessibility is especially important when designing a criminal court building. Disproportionately, those who are accused of crimes and those who are the victims of crime have some kind of disability. For example, at least 50% of people who receive Legal Aid services in Ontario have mental health issues, addiction issues or both.
We re-iterate the pressing need for you to act swiftly to implement all the recommendations included in our still unanswered October 5, 2017 letter. We want to ensure that you will allow no further steps to be taken on this or any other new courthouse project until all these accessibility concerns are resolved.
It is more important than ever that all of the accessibility advice and feedback provided by the two accessibility consultant firms on this project, and the feedback from our consultation session, be promptly made public, and that the Government let us know in a timely fashion what it will do in the face of that advice.
We wish to re-emphasize that there was no good reason for the Government’s having refused to disclose to us and the public the accessibility requirements in this project’s “Project Specific Output Specifications” (PSOS) requirements until after the competitive bid process was completed. Presumably, the same accessibility requirements were submitted to all who bid on this project. What was the secret? Making this information public before the competition has started or during the process could not compromise the bid process. The Government’s having withheld that information until after that bid process, and indeed up to the present, has only helped result in the Government approving a bid that is replete with accessibility problems. That is inconsistent with the Government’s 2014 election promise not to use public money to create or perpetuate disability accessibility barriers.
Finally, at this March 14, 2018 disability consultation session, Mr. Bob Topping, from DesignAble Environments (the Project Compliance Team’s accessibility consultant), indicated that his firm is now working on creating a new accessibility standard for the Ministry of the Attorney General specifically for courthouses. This came as news.
We are eager for you to let us know more details about this important project and of any other organizations, if any, that are involved in this project. We also ask that you ensure that we, the AODA Alliance, and the broader disability community are also consulted on the development of this important new standard. We ask to be given a draft of this new accessibility standard in whatever stage of development it may be, so we can now begin the input process. Indeed it is hard to understand why the Government did not develop its new courts accessibility standard before embarking on such a major new courthouse project.
Minister, you should be very concerned about this entire situation. I have had the privilege for over a decade of representing the AODA Alliance on the Ontario Courts Accessibility Committee. This is a joint committee of the judiciary, the Government, the legal profession and disability representatives. It oversees progress on making Ontario’s courts accessible to people with disabilities.
Last fall, at that Committee’s September 25, 2017 meeting, representatives of the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Project Compliance Team made a detailed presentation on the steps being taken to ensure that the New Toronto Courthouse is truly accessible to people with disabilities. Their presentation was designed to leave the impression that everything is well under control, that all needed accessibility standards are being met or exceeded, and that the results will be good.
Our questioning at that meeting revealed that no people with disabilities had ever been consulted in the several years that this New Toronto Courthouse project has been under development. This in turn led to your Ministry commendably convening the March 14, 2018 disability sector consultation that this letter summarizes. That meeting in turn revealed the serious accessibility concerns with this project design, as illustrated in this letter.
There is something wrong when a project, especially one of this size and importance, has come so far with so many accessibility problems, improperly addressed.
Your immediate attention to this issue would be very much appreciated.
David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont
Chair Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance
cc: Premier Kathleen Wynne, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Accessibility email@example.com
Marie-Lison Fougère, Deputy Minister of Accessibility, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ann Hoy, Assistant Deputy Minister for the Accessibility Directorate, email@example.com
Steve Orsini, Secretary to Cabinet firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Boniferro, Deputy Attorney General for Ontario Paul.email@example.com
Dante Pontone, Assistant Deputy Attorney General firstname.lastname@example.org
Sheila Bristo, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Sheila.Bristo@ontario.ca
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