Here We Go Again! New Wing at University of Toronto’s Robarts Library Was Designed and Built with Preventable New Disability Barriers

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities Web: https://www.aodaalliance.org
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June 29, 2022

SUMMARY

The University of Toronto created totally preventable new disability accessibility barriers when it created new student space in a new wing of its major student library, according to a powerful report in today’s Globe and Mail. (Article set out below)

We applaud the Globe and Mail for investigating this blunder and bringing it to public attention. It is staggering in 2022 that a major Ontario university could show such palpable disregard for the needs of people with disabilities, including their own students with disabilities. The university is bound to obey the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code. It should not be creating any new disability barriers.

Both the architecture firm that designed this project and U of T are quoted as trying to justify their actions. Their excuses are transparently meritless. For example, the architecture firm involved in this project said that the discussion around accessibility has evolved in the past few years. Yet people with disabilities were not invented in the past few years. It was not a recent revelation that people using mobility devices cannot go up or down stairs. As a result of this news report, the following questions cry out for answers:

Who at the University of Toronto approved the creation of these new accessibility barriers, to the long-term detriment of people with disabilities?

Was any public money used as part of this project? If so, how is it that the Government allowed public money to be used to create new disability barriers?

If charitable donations were used to build this project, has the University of Toronto accounted to its donors that their money was improperly used to the detriment of people with disabilities, including students with disabilities?

This new U of T library wing flies in the face of the entire direction of the final report of the Post-Secondary Education Standards Development Committee which the Ford Government received several months ago. Barriers in the built environment of colleges and universities were included in that Government-appointed advisory committee’s review of impediments that students with disabilities face in Ontario’s education system.

This further illustrates why the Ford Government must create a strong and effective Built Environment Accessibility Standard under the AODA and must revise the Ontario Building Code to ensure that no buildings can be built with new accessibility barriers. Visit the AODA Alliance website’s built environment page to learn about our struggle for well over a decade to achieve this goal.

What the University of Toronto here did was appalling but sadly, not unusual. Here are just five inexcusable examples that we have previously brought to public light of similar bungling in new public infrastructure, including infrastructure that draws on public money:
* A 2017 AODA Alliance video, referred to in the Globe article, revealed serious accessibility problems at the new Ryerson University Student Learning Centre (now Toronto Metropolitan University.
* A 2016 AODA Alliance video documented serious accessibility blunders at the New Centennial College Culinary Arts Centre.
* A 2018 AODA Alliance video shows serious accessibility problems in new public Transit stations and recently renovated ones in the Toronto area.
* The December 1, 2017, AODA Alliance news release revealed that York University had approved plans for a new Markham campus that included serious accessibility screw-ups. That project was to cost $250 million, including $125 million from the Ontario Government. Since then, we have heard informally that both the plans and possibly the funding arrangements have changed. We have not been consulted on the new design, and do not know how many accessibility problems were solved.
* The AODA Alliance website’s courts accessibility page documents serious accessibility problems in the New Toronto Courthouse, which the Ontario Government is now building.

The AODA requires the Ontario Government to lead Ontario to become accessible to people with disabilities by 2025. That includes ensuring the accessibility of buildings, according to the AODA. There are now only 917 days before 2025.

We also need the Ontario Government to dramatically reform how public infrastructure projects are designed and approved, especially when public money helps pay for them. The Ford Government is embarking on many major new infrastructure projects, including new hospitals, schools and public transit, just to name a few. We raised this issue yet again with Premier Ford in the AODA Alliance June 22, 2022, letter to him, and in the AODA Alliance’s June 27, 2022, letter to re-appointed Accessibility Minister Raymond Cho.

MORE DETAILS

Globe and Mail June 29, 2022

Originally posted athttps://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/article-when-it-comes-to-accessibility-architects-must-hold-themselves-to-a/ OPINION

Why is accessibility still an issue in architecture?

By ALEX BOZIKOVIC
Staff
The first thing you see is a set of stairs. As you walk or roll through the front doors of Robarts Common – the new wing at the University of Toronto’s main library – the staircase rises up behind the front desk. It’s lined by a set of large platforms where you can lounge, visit and study. Unless, that is, you have a physical disability.

This is a problem. This five-storey wing provides study space for students on the U of T’s downtown campus, and it’s designed for people to gather. Yet a major aspect of its architecture clearly excludes people with disabilities. This reflects an issue within the architectural profession and in Canada at large: We are still designing buildings that add barriers, rather than removing them.

The key issue at Robarts Common is the diagonal elements between floors. These combine a conventional staircase; a parallel set of oversized steps, which are large enough to sit on; and desk seating in stepped rows.

Gary McCluskie described these elements as gathering space. The system of stepped spaces “allows you to see where you’re going and draw you in,” he said.

But that’s sales patter, the kind of thing architects use to persuade their clients to accept a design.

Robarts Common is not a simple building. It is a relatively skinny rectangle that rests on two points in the ground, and reaches out across the loading dock of the library. Its structure involves steel beams joined into a complex triangular geometry, supporting a fully glass wall. (The glass is itself a weird choice for a building that gets a lot of afternoon sunlight.) Diamond Schmitt’s design increases the complexity of the space and structure by adding those diagonal elements.

The fact is that architects, in general, love these sittable steps. Also known as grand stairs, Spanish steps or bleachers, they have been a trend for a decade. Architects like to design “in section,” as they say – in other words, with the movement of light and people from level to level.

The problem is that not everyone can take the stairs. And for a building to be truly accessible, it should not set up any unnecessary barriers; people with disabilities should have the same experience of a building as anyone else. This has long been a consensus among disability advocates.

Until very recently, however, architects and most of their clients have held themselves to a lower standard: that certain spaces don’t need to be accessible, as long as people with disabilities have a parallel option. That idea shaped the Robarts building, which has been in process for a decade.

On each level, there is an area at the bottom of the stairs designated for people with physical disabilities. Someone in a wheelchair could, in theory, linger here, and look up at classmates on the stairs.

But this kind of separate but equal experience should never have been viewed as acceptable, said David Lepofsky, a lawyer who chairs the advocacy group AODA Alliance. “That’s basically saying that students with disabilities are second-class citizens,” he said. “Human rights are human rights.”

The issue, when I raised it, prompted uncomfortable responses from the university and Diamond Schmitt. Mr. McCluskie acknowledged his firm’s current work – including Ottawa’s new main library – aims for a much higher level of accessibility.

“The discussion around accessibility has evolved in the past few years,” he said.

A university spokesperson, by e-mail, made a different argument: “U of T strives to centre accessibility in everything that we do,” they said. “Tiered classrooms and informal collaboration spaces that connect levels of our multi-storey buildings are intended to maximize space.”

But that’s not true. The diagonal elements at Robarts Common take a two storey section of the building and combine it into one. The result is less floorspace, not more, as Mr. McCluskie acknowledged.

This issue is not unique to U of T or to Diamond Schmitt. Grand stairs figure prominently in recent buildings at UBC (by Dialog and B&H), York University (by Cannon Design) and Toronto Metropolitan University (by Snohetta and Zeidler).

I wrote approvingly about the latter building, then called Ryerson Student Learning Centre, in 2015. Then in 2017, Mr. Lepofsky released a YouTube video which skewered its accessibility problems. Mr. Lepofsky, who is blind, found the building difficult and even dangerous to navigate.

As he revealed, it has numerous design features – including sittable stairs – that are not accessible.

Then in 2019, a New York Public Library building by the prominent architect Steven Holl prompted a lawsuit over its stair-oriented design. The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act is far stricter than its Canadian counterpart.

So: Some of us have learned a lesson about inclusion in the past five years. But Mr. Lepofsky makes two points: One, it shouldn’t have taken so long. “The Ontarians with Disabilities Act” – which sets out standards for accessibility – “was passed in 2005,” he pointed out. “Why were architects not paying attention?” The profession has much to learn in this respect. And the problems continue. The University of Toronto is currently renovating a building for its administration, designed by prominent New York architects OMA, which will have a prominent set of bleachers.

And two: accessibility problems often are self-inflicted. “Very often these features are not there because they’re necessary,” he said. “They’re someone’s idea of cool design.”

That is manifestly the case at Robarts Common. On my third visit to the building, I walked behind the ground-floor stair to see what was there. It turned out to be a forlorn little lobby, wedged in under the diagonal mass that the architects have imposed on the building.

This evokes a complaint I’ve heard from architects when it comes to accessibility: that these constraints crush their creativity. That position is unethical, and it’s also wrong. There are many ways for architecture to engage people without sending them upstairs: the modulation of light, the creative use of materials, graphics, even colour. Robarts Common is a hunk of undifferentiated glass and grey aluminum panel. Surely there is another way to access great design.