There has been a very valuable discussion on Twitter from Ms. Sinenomine about the use of the term “Walkability”.
She is well worth a follow, and presents a stalwart and stark view of how the language we use focuses away from the root of accessibility and universal acceptance. She states the obvious: we need to do better at ensuring that the most vulnerable have the same access and social equity to sidewalk pavements and public spaces, and we must start doing that now.
Here is part of her post, presented below.
Earlier this week I was tagged on tweet related to an urban planning trend about designing for ‘walkable’ or ‘walkability.’ I replied, I don’t walk so it doesn’t apply to me.
If my friend calls me up and asks if I want to go for a walk I don’t yell “I DON’T WALK!” into the phone and hang up. I say “Oh Lord yes I need to get off Twitter, let’s go!” (If I’m well) My friend is not designing public space. My friend is not an urban planner.
I can’t believe I have to explain why the word matters a great deal in one situation and not in the least in another but…it’s 2018 and so apparently I do.
As a disabled person my accessibility needs either aren’t considered, are an afterthought, or I am stuck with someone else’s idea of what will work for me which not only doesn’t but who’ll then become angry & insist that it MUST because they understand my body better than I do.  The professions involved in designing our physical environment & architecture epitomize all three of the worst of those things.
Let’s assume no ill intent. Let’s assume no actual desire to exclude.
Let’s assume that inaccessibility in design today mainly happens because
‘I didn’t think about that.’
‘We changed it at the last minute.’
‘I didn’t think that small adjustment would matter.’
‘The budget was tight & we had to cut somewhere.’
‘We couldn’t make it work…’ So first of all – insisting that the word accessible be added or ‘walkable’ be replaced with a more inclusive word means that when they fail on accessibility, it is put front and centre. It’s not ‘among our priorities will be’ It is a requirement.
‏It also works as a reminder we exist and our design needs exist. For most of the last century we weren’t a part of the community & the community was not designed for us to be there. Disabled people were institutionalized. Designing for us wasn’t a consideration.
What passes for accessibility today may very well be considered out of date tomorrow.
One of the things that irritates me with planners, civil engineers, designers is they’ll tell me ‘We know how to make things accessible’
It’s all solved? Nothing to be improved?
But here’s the funny thing. I can push them on this because I am a wheelchair user. I can say simply, I can’t walk – and it’s true and it’s hard to argue with me that the word sounds strange ‘Hey there wheelchair user, come see the walkable neighbourhood we designed’
The truth is it’s not just about wheelchair users.
Before I was a wheelchair user I used a walker. I could get places I currently can’t but I felt less comfortable being out than I do know. The timing of the lights left me in the street when crossing.
I worried – really worried – about being knocked by someone’s bag or brushed too hard by someone passing on those not wide enough for people of different widths with different belongings, devices…to move at different speeds. It would not have taken much to knock me over.
But it’s not even just people who are unsteady – like I was – and using walkers – or wheelchair users.
Physical space is not just what’s beneath us. It’s what’s around us.
What in our physical space is welcoming or barrier to other disabled people.
It’s generally recognized that accessibility of design *should* (in theory) consider wheelchair users and people with mobility disabilities, blind and Deaf community needs. Less common- people with intellectual disabilities, ND folks, people with mental health disabilities.
I truly believe whatever they think they mean – or whatever a few exceptional ones may generally mean – the word walkable means, ‘people who are pretty much like me’ When your profession has been part of the systematic exclusion of an entire demographic & you genuinely want to make that shift to full inclusion – you don’t put it in the fine print…
You hire a sky writer, you drive around with a speaker on the roof of your car (or handlebar of your bike). You knock on doors. You hand out posters. You set up tables at the mall. You bring in interpreters. You make accessible videos – saying
You can make your goal designing better communities for people who already are not excluded from the community – or you can make your goal designing communities that welcome everyone including those who have been and are most excluded.
The latter will necessarily give you the former. But the former will not necessarily lead to the latter – and in fact is unlikely. You can make your goal designing better communities for people who already are not excluded from the community – or you can make your goal designing communities that welcome everyone including those who have been and are most excluded.
Oh one last thing – while you’re all here. Still waiting for a building to be built where the non-disabled have to enter around back next to the garbage bin & only disabled people can use the main entrance.
When that happens, maybe we can talk about how we mean you too.”


  1. The design of a transportation corridor should start from the consideration of the disabled. In that way all the other users’ requirements will be addressed. That viewpoint was offered by a right-a-way engineer who was doing it other way and finally had a “aha” moment and realized it was efficient to start the design from requirements of the vulnerable users.

  2. I’ve spent 40 years now as an architect looking at the baggage that people bring with them to “solve design problems.” Even the phrase “solve design problems” has its own baggage: it says you define the problem, then you solve it. If you go at it that way, you load your baggage onto the problem before you’ve taken the time to understand what you really need to end up with.
    Here’s an example: until very recently, virtually the entire western architectural world defined “important public buildings” as being “raised up above the everyday world”, like the Parthenon. Once you buy into that, steps become very, very important because they help to form the “plinth” on which the building sits (architects use ancient terms like plinth because it reflects how valuable they think these things are.) Then you run into “requirements for the disabled” and as an architect, if you’ve already got a plinth, well, now you have to have ramps. And then the code says the ramp has to be 20 times longer than it is high unless you want handrails and landings, and you start thinking “hey, it sure is getting hard to design a good building.” And then you work and work at it and discover that if you just use the rise of the side street to get the ramp over there, and come back to maybe a side door, it will all work out — problem solved! But no. One problem solved, another created, because now, as the blogpost above points out, you’ve separated out the “able” from the “unable”. But you don’t care because, well, there are so few disabled people and the code says you’ve met their needs.
    The hard part in designing a good building, a good sidewalk, a good park, a good bus, is not how to get the ramps in; it’s figuring out that you’re starting from the wrong premise, the wrong definition of the problem, a definition that is more than 2,000 years out of date.

  3. Most, if not all, buildings or sidewalks in Vancouver are accessible.
    Not sure where this writer lives but it can’t be in Vancouver.
    Unmentioned, of course, is cost.
    On a side note: I too am “disabled”: I am very noise sensitive. Where is the debate anywhere on noise in cities, such as cars, trucks or busses accelerating, motorcycles roaring, ambulances’ sirens (at midnight) etc ? Very distracting …

    1. Hi. It’s my thread. I live in Vancouver. My days – and computer – are filled with photos of broken sidewalks, badly designed curb cuts – and oh hey, there’s approximately 8,000 intersections without curb cuts in the City of Vancouver. As far as buildings. Well I can’t access many restaurants or stores in my own neighbourhood. The ones I can, few have accessible washrooms – so I can’t really eat or drink at those. I’ve attended meetings in relatively new office buildings on Georgia St. that had no accessible washroom for me to use. I found that out after they served and I drank coffee.
      I am not sure why you put quotation marks around the word disabled. It’s not a word that needs to be put in quotation marks. Disability exists. Disabled people exist – and we are marginalized and excluded and have a long history of systemic discrimination and oppression.
      If someone is disabled and aspects of city design are a barrier for them, we should be discussing them – as I mentioned in my thread. I certainly believe our cities and society would benefit from broadening our definition and discussion of accessibility. We in the disability community do. We understand that disability is much more than wheelchair user and we don’t believe there is a hierarchy of whose access needs matter most.
      In terms of cost – well, there are always costs for everything. It’s really about choices isn’t it? Where we choose to spend the money. What we choose to deem worthwhile and important. Whose needs we choose to believe matter.
      There are also health costs associated with social isolation. For the individual it is, according to health experts, about as detrimental as smoking about a pack of cigarettes a day. There are the unknown costs of lost contributions of disabled people to their community. So there is a strong argument to be made that accessibility is good use of public funds and saves money on other fronts. But I really don’t feel the need to present that evidence or argue that here or ever. Accessibility is a human rights issue.

      1. I put “disabled” in quotes as it comes in various shades. It’s not black and white. My excessive noise sensitivity doesn’t qualify me as disabled, but it prevents me from functioning well in certain high noise environments, such as open / cubicled office environments, pubs or retail malls. Others are visually or hearing impaired, to various degrees. You are walking impaired, but I assume otherwise mentally, visually and orally competent. Clearly you can function well in Vancouver, not as well as an abled walker obviously, but pretty well. Most areas I am aware of have letdowns on the curbs and most (but yes, not all but most) buildings have ramps, elevators or access options.
        As such, clearly there is a hierarchy and degrees of cost, as a walking disabled, blind and deaf person cannot function as good as a person that is merely somewhat walking disabled such as my father-in-law with MS who can walk a few hundred meters but can’t walk up stairs.
        I give you TWO examples:
        a) when I was on council at the resident council at UBC (called the UNA, see here http://www.myuna.ca ) a few years ago a new community center was designed, then built. It has only two floors. The upper floors are mainly meeting rooms or small specialty gyms. Due to cost, and it being only 2 floors, I advocated for a ramp, however it was decided to build a 2 floor elevator at great expense. Is this the right allocation of money, especially given that very few walking disabled folks go upstairs to exercise.
        b) most buildings have a bell that rings when the elevator arrives, even one elevator buildings. The elevator in the building I live in rings this quite loud bell when the elevator changes direction. This bell is so loud, you can hear it in the apartments. Allegedly this is code for the visually impaired. So, is it right to inconvenience most people living adjacent to the hallway when there are very few (if any) visually impaired or blind folks using this elevator ?
        I disagree with your comment about “and we are marginalized and excluded and have a long history of systemic discrimination and oppression.” .. who oppresses you when you can’t walk ? Who discriminates if you apply for a job as an accountant, lawyer or engineer for example ? Of course, if you can’t communicate that is far more difficult than if you can’t walk. So, this comment really depends highly on the discrimination. A blind person obviously has limitations that a hearing impaired guy does not have. So one might be a great musician but the other a great painter. What’s is your profession ?
        I have a nephew that is mentally “disabled” but functions quite well within his abilities. He can write very poorly due to poor hand coordination, for example, but is quite a good golfer, far better than me, for example.
        Isn’t every person discriminated against as every person has different talent ? People that are not good at math or organization do make a great accountant but a good sales rep, for example.
        One thing which is lacking in Canada is the forced employment of disabled folks in the work force. We can learn a lot from Europe here, for example https://www.euro.centre.org/downloads/detail/1459
        Also, I wonder if this statement is true ” there’s approximately 8,000 intersections without curb cuts in the City of Vancouver.” Do we even have 8000 intersections in Vancouver ?
        Of course the subject is very broad as “disability” is such a wide ranging subject. Perhaps we can narrow it down a bit, say access to retail stores or buildings. Do you have specific examples ?

        1. Your noise sensitivity doesn’t qualify you as disabled, just intolerant. Similarly, your intolerance may have little to do with your character, but rather your knowledge of the subject matter. (benefit of the doubt?)
          Speaking of which, I spoke to a former Translink planner last summer, who relayed this anecdote to me:
          My neighbourhood doesn’t have sidewalks on every street. I called the city of Vancouver, spoke to the person in their sidewalks group about the lack of let-downs in my neighbourhood. There’s hardly any in my neighbourhood and we’re trying to get people on strollers, wheelchairs, [etc] to walk to Canada Line, to transit, to neighbourhood stores. She said to me…we’ve got 19,000 curbs with no let-down in the city.
          Take those 8,000 intersections broadly referenced earlier – if they all lacked an average of 2.5 let-downs each, you have 19,000.
          You may question the numbers, but you could also do some light research. Here’s a link with some number-crunching:

        2. As stated, it all costs money. Money is finite ie it is usually budgeted. What is more important, more letdowns, more beeping light signals at crossings, more homeless shelters, new bikelanes, more fentanyl crisis center or a 2% raise for all civil servants ? Those are the decisions politicians and their civil servants working for them are faced with annually.
          Presumably letdowns are built with the usual sidewalk repairs, perhaps every 30-40 years or at the busiest points more frequent than that. I’d say downtown all, or almost all, intersections have letdowns.
          Can we do more: absolutely. However, if we do X then we have to cut Y. So, if we do more letdowns, where shall we cut in lieu ?

  4. We’re all variously abled at different times – that’s what Universal Design addresses. Look at just about any house and imagine entering while using crutches or a wheelchair. Not happening. Try cooking. Good luck.
    What’s more important, LEED certification, or Universal Design.
    We need another genius architect like Arthur Erickson for the big stuff. And we need residential designers experienced with Universal Design for houses – not registered architects – they’re too expensive. The Dreck Van Specs being thrown up now are atrocious – footage over form and function – open concept rubbish with dungeon basement suites.

    1. The Vancouver Building Bylaw has both advanced energy requirements and universal access built in. No need for either-or. In many cases the UD is in the form of rough-ins to make conversion cheap when it’s needed but not impose it on able-bodied residents when it’s not. It’s an entire section of the code and it’s required for all new houses and major renovations.
      One issue will always be the front stairs and that would need to be addressed with lifts or ramps when they become necessary. But without a significant run of stairs, basements would be too deep to be livable. The code was changed some years back to get basement suites further out of the ground and there are fixed limits as to to how deep a suite may be built.

      1. Following on the point of Anonymous, above, we could design with no basements and grade-entry main floors. The buildings would tend to be significantly taller for the same floor area. For a long time the focus has been on reduced massing/shadowing. Maybe needs a rethink.

        1. Anonymous here. There will always be spaces in buildings that people with one disability or another will have difficulty using. The upper floor, for example, in a small, two floor house or townhouse where there is neither space or budget for an elevator, and a ramp would be 180 feet long. There will always be hills that people can’t get up or distances they can’t walk to get to transportation. Universal design (which I incorporate as much as possible into everything I do, which includes houses up to $2,000 per square foot) does not solve every problem; it eliminates unnecessary problems, many of which are not even visible as problems until they’re pointed out.
          Here’s an example: shower curbs that everyone has problems with, particularly people with mobility problems. Almost every residential shower in Vancouver has a curb around it, 4 to 6 inches high. Why? To keep the water in until it can run to the drain? Sort of. But if you think about it, if you’ve gone to a public pool or private club, the showers don’t have a curb, they have a drain in the floor and a slight slope to that drain and the water gets there. Now, you might think that it’s a code issue, that clubs or pools have to meet a more stringent code for access for the disabled and you’d be partly right, but not really, because showers in places like that have been that way forever — long before codes even — because it was the easy thing to do. Curbs only came about because people wanted to build showers on framed structures where there wasn’t an easy way to get a sloped floor. And a whole industry was born, complete with lousy details available in every textbook for every young architect like me who unwittingly built these curbs into hotels. For no good reason except that everybody did it. For the last thirty years, in fact, the reservations staff of my favourite hotel project has had to tell people in wheelchairs that yes, there were showers, but no, they were not accessible, except for a couple that had been converted to roll in showers, but no, those were not available because they were already booked. And the solution to shower curbs? A 1″ slope to the drain, easily achieved with either a slight depression at the shower or a slight raise in the whole bathroom floor. And now, a whole new industry is born, with 1″ sloping shower pans (see Schluter Kerdi shower), as if this was revolutionary. But it is just ordinary, has been ordinary for hundreds of years, and is the kind of “universal design” that costs nothing and inconveniences nobody.

  5. Disabled by design not by physical capabilities, ill designed milieu thwarts the full participation the tricky part is some disabilities are subtle silent like the effects of brain injury. Therefore urban planners or Town planning (UK) and other practitioners alike need to adopt wholesome polices and strategies to create environments where people want to work, play and live including the atypical.

  6. Great chronicle, they should get at least one disabled person on every planning board. It’s within us disabled folk to know what’s best for us

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