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Tool kit to help historical buildings be more accessible

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The Ontario Historical Society delivered a new tool kit here Monday to help the town better identify how to make its historical buildings more accessible to those with disabilities.

In partnership with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, the OHS had produced the Accessible Heritage Tool Kit for Ontario’s heritage organizations and institutions as a follow-up to a series of five workshops, entitled “Making Ontario’s Heritage Accessible for Persons with Disabilities,” held back in 2005-06, explained OHS executive director Rob Leverty.

These workshops were held in Fort Frances, Chatham, Sudbury, Ottawa, and Newmarket.

“We’re officially handing over the materials, the Accessible Heritage Tool Kit, to help make history and heritage accessible to all the citizens of Ontario, even for people who have disabilities,” said Leverty, adding the OHS is not-for-profit, non-government registered charity with a wide membership base from all regions of Ontario and of all ages, some of whom have disabilities, “so we’re very sensitive to this subject.”

“This is the first kind of tool kit like this to be done in Ontario,” noted Leverty.

The tool kit, which is compiled in a binder with materials that easily can be reproduced and added to, acts as a sort of “checklist” for organizations to reference to understand how to make themselves as accessible as possible.

This is very useful when they’re upgrading a building or building a new one, for example, but the term “access” here extends beyond physical access to informational access. As such, the tool kit also provides ideas as to how to make electronic media, exhibits, or brochures useful to, say, the vision impaired.

“We’re taking a very broad approach. We call it ‘beyond the ramp,’” explained Leverty. “It’s not just the physical aspect of it—it’s documents, lighting, preparation of newsletters, everything.

“It’s been a very exciting project.”

The tool kit ties into the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005, the first part of which—the accessible customer service standard—came into effect Jan. 1, 2008.

Public-sector organizations designated in the standard, including the Legislative Assembly, Ontario government ministries, and some boards and agencies, as well as broader ones, including municipalities, school boards, community colleges, universities, public hospitals, and public transportation organizations, must come into compliance by Jan. 1, 2010.

(All other providers of goods or services with at least one employee in Ontario, such as private-sector businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and those public-sector organizations that are not designated in the standard, must come into compliance with the regulation by Jan. 1, 2012).

“Because history and heritage groups are, on a daily basis, dealing with the public, customer service is very fundamental,” said Leverty. “So as part of the tool kit, we are including a talk on customer service and what we should be thinking about—not just for persons with disabilities but for everybody.”

Fort Frances Museum curator Pam Hawley, who attended the accessibility workshop held here three years ago and said accessibility issues covered then were considered in the plans for the recent museum renovations, lauded the tool kit.

“We all now have mandates to meet accessibility legislation, so things like this are very important for us to help us assist in our delivery of services to people who may have problems accessing the traditional services,” she noted.

“It’s certainly a direction we all need to go.

“Certainly, with our renovations at the museum, we made the physical accessibility a little more prominent,” said Hawley. “And then in developing some of the exhibits, we do look at visual impairment—size of fonts, things like that—so that more people can access it.

“It’s a very important issue, and it’s great to have an agency like the Ontario Historical Society come in and help deliver workshops and some of the resources we need to do that,” she added.

Municipal planner Faye Flatt, who also is a member of the town’s accessibility advisory committee, clarified that while public buildings are required to be accessible, private buildings are not necessarily so.

Flatt said big businesses here, like Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire, “are more than happy to oblige” with making their stores more accessible because it gives them more customers, but added the accessibility advisory committee is in the process of developing design guidelines to make the private sector accessible in general.

“When a developer comes into town, they’ll be given those design guidelines, and notwithstanding that our zoning bylaw may say so many parking spaces for every ‘x’ number of metres of retail space, a certain number of those parking spaces will be required to be handicap accessible,” Flatt explained.

“It’s not in our zoning bylaw, so unless it’s under site plan control or some other form of planning control, we have no hammer. We have no legislation to rely on,” she added.

Chief librarian Margaret Sedgwick said accessibility has been one of the major criteria for building the new library and technology centre here in Fort Frances.

“We’ve examined all sorts of different aspects of accessibility, from wider space between shelves to lower shelves, the entrances, the washrooms,” she remarked. “There’s so much in this tool kit.

“I’m sure it will provide even more information we may not have thought about,” Sedgwick said.

While in Fort Frances on Monday, OHS representatives also got a chance to tour the recently-renovated Fort Frances Museum and noted it looks impressive.

Then they were in Sioux Lookout yesterday to give a presentation on the new tool kit at the fall meeting of the Sunset Country Museums Network.

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