Dec. 8, 2023

Accessibility of public places for people with disabilities lags in Calgary

Motivated by her late father’s disability, UCalgary geographer Victoria Fast leads Mapping Our Cities for All project to measure accessibility of Canadian cities
A woman in a wheelchair is positioned next to a woman standing and both are smiling at the camera

Victoria Fast, left, collaborated with Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow, on the recently released Mapping Our Cities for All report.


Dr. Victoria Fast, PhD, and her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and used an electric wheelchair, used to affectionately call their regular get togethers “walking and rolling dates.”

He’d take the bus from Hamilton to Toronto, where Fast, now an associate professor in UCalgary’s Department of Geography, was completing her PhD at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). “Those were special times,” says Fast.  

But they weren’t without their awful anxieties.

She remembers calling restaurants in advance, to inquire about their wheelchair accessibility, and being told her father could be accommodated. They would arrive and invariably encounter some crucial obstacle — maybe a single step at the entrance. Or worse, an accessible front entrance but no accessible washrooms.

“We would order food and drinks, only to be forced to leave early to find an accessible washroom elsewhere,” Fast recalls.

She has a multitude of memories with this common theme.

Many times, she heard her demoralized father’s wish for a map that would help him navigate his way through our inaccessible cities. This frustrated plea influenced Fast’s research path. Today she is a specialist in urban GIS (Geographic Information Systems), with a focus on spatial data and accessibility mapping.

Fast’s father passed away in 2019, but she has not forgotten his pain. “I am more motivated than ever to make a more accessible world for people with disabilities,” she says. “That was my promise to him.”

With the recent publication of the Mapping Our Cities for All (MOCA) report, released by her collaborating partners at AccessNow, Fast has made great strides toward that goal.

Calgary falls behind on accessibility

The report’s UCalgary led research shows that nearly 60 per cent of public spaces mapped in Calgary, Vancouver, and Ottawa are either inaccessible or partially inaccessible to people with disabilities. Further, the research reveals that of the three cities, Calgary finishes last with only 35 per cent of the buildings mapped deemed accessible. This is compared to 48 per cent accessibility in Vancouver and 53 per cent accessibility in Ottawa. In Calgary, 5,381 locations were mapped.

The MOCA project, launched at UCalgary, is Canada’s largest accessibility research initiative to date, using geographic data and insights from people with lived experiences of disability to assess the accessibility of Canadian cities. To date, MOCA has assessed over 14,000 consumer-facing, street-level public businesses in Calgary, Vancouver, and Ottawa, as well as in 17 rural Alberta towns.

The report is aimed at aiding the federal government in meeting the goals of the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). Established in 2019, the ACA aims to create a country free of barriers for disabled people by 2040.

The MOCA report was released by AccessNow, an accessibility technology company which provides a free crowdsourcing mobile app that collects and shares accessibility information for cities across Canada.

Goal: A more inclusive Canada

“There hasn’t been a clear understanding in Canada as to what barriers people with disabilities face,” says Fast. “When the Government of Canada enacted this legislation, they acknowledged: ‘We need a better understanding. We need feedback on the barriers faced by individuals with disabilities.’ It’s our job to help them understand and support them in their goals.”

This understanding is critical to advancing the accessibility landscape in Canada. “Only once we measure access can we improve it,” says Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow.

“MOCA was born out of the need for powerful data. By using the collective experiences and perspectives of people with all forms of disabilities, we can drive meaningful progress toward a more inclusive Canada.”

Fast and her then-master's students Russell Copley and Rhiannon Scott,  began the MOCA project in 2021 in partnership with AccessNow. The report’s research was conducted by 40 mappers, including those with lived experience of various disabilities, who spent 4,090 hours mapping over 14,000 distinct locations in Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, as well as 17 rural Alberta towns.

Collecting more than 126,000 data points, mappers from these locations assessed each location’s overall accessibility levels with ratings of Accessible, Partially Accessible, and Not Accessible.

Factors taken into consideration include the accessibility of parking and building entrances, the accessibility of washrooms, and such general categories as lighting, the height of tables, spaciousness, and digital and braille menus. The collected data can be viewed on AccessNow’s interactive map.

Wide range of perspectives and experiences

To be sure, Fast and her team had their work cut out for them, trying to standardize and analyze such a complex body of material within the report.

The data they sifted through included contributions from people with varying degrees of vision and hearing loss, as well as neurodivergent individuals, such as people with autism and ADHD.

“A location’s lighting and noise level is important information for people who are neurodiverse, or individuals with post-concussion syndrome,” Fast explains.

“The foundation of this work is to include a wide range of perspectives and experiences from the disabled community,” Fast says. “The cornerstone of disability justice is that it includes everybody, so our goal has been to integrate this incredibly wide disability lens.”

The report found that the most accessible businesses often tend to be those related to health and personal care, finance, clothing, and sporting goods stores. Among the least accessible are professional, scientific, and technical services, as well as places of education, with fewer than 35 per cent of these locations rated as accessible. Troublingly, the education sector has the highest proportion of businesses rated as not accessible.

In Calgary, areas in the downtown core are among the least accessible while newer areas such as the University District have better accessibility.

New findings from 2022 Canadian survey

Fast notes that the report highlights areas of attention where each municipality can prioritize their efforts to improve accessibility. “MOCA demonstrates how cities across Canada can make measurable progress toward advancing accessibility by applying insights from the disabled community to shape local-level policy, targeted to where improvements are needed most.”

Fast and Ziv encourage other Canadian cities to join the mapping movement to begin improving their accessibility. This research can easily be replicated in municipalities across Canada by using the AccessNow app.

New findings from the 2022 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) show that 27 per cent of Canadians aged 15 years and older — eight million people — have one or more disabilities that limit them in their daily activities.

“Accessibility is a fundamental human right, and we envision a world where everyone can navigate their surroundings with ease and dignity, regardless of their abilities,” says Ziv. “Together, we can empower individuals with disabilities to participate fully in society by providing critical insights and build a more inclusive future where no one is left behind.”

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