Color & Control:

How the pandemic has affected the built environment

By Rebecca Blissett

To educate building owners and managers about barriers they might be inadvertently creating for people with disabilities, the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) team recently hosted a two-part webinar series called COVID-19 and Accessibility: How Has the Pandemic Affected the Built Environment. In this webinar, Jonathan Marriott explored how the built environment is affected by social distancing measures and what it has meant for people navigating these spaces. 

Marriott is an accessibility consultant and has his RHFAC Professional designation, which means he can conduct ratings in buildings for meaningful accessibility beyond what is outlined by building codes.

“The pandemic impacted navigation for many users with disabilities by introducing barriers that may not have been present previously,” claims Marriott. “Certain safety measures have, quite frankly, magnified just how members of our community are not afforded equitable or dignified access to essential services. It also highlights the fact that some of these safe-guarding measures put into place show a lack of understanding and consideration for all user needs.”

Marriott showed webinar attendees where pandemic accessibility could be significantly improved by using photographs and providing a verbal description of common real-life examples. In one, an urban street was blocked off to allow only pedestrian traffic with confusing signage that used non-universal symbols. Yellow ramps, presumably used as a barrier for vehicle traffic, had steep grading of more than five per cent, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to navigate while using a mobility device. There were also loose covers on the metal ramps, a potential tripping hazard for all users.

Another example showed the use of tall flower pots on a sidewalk. The pots were placed in a semi-circle to create an organized space for people to line up for service. Regrettably, the pots were placed in the path of travel in such a way that the user of a wheelchair or other mobility device was forced to make an unnecessarily wide detour around the area. The pots also created a barrier for people who have low vision or rely on navigation by shorelining, a technique used by people who use canes by sweeping back and forth.

The most common new barrier Marriott discussed was the introduction of plexiglass. In fact, 60 per cent of respondents in a study titled Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Communication and Healthcare Access for Adults with Hearing Loss reported difficulty understanding others behind plexiglass barrier. Add in mask-wearing, and that number shoots to 80 per cent. Other barriers included the reflection on plexiglass at reception desks with no colour-contrasting tape to distinguish where the plexiglass starts and ends. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to accessibility,” said Marriott. “But there are many things people can do to improve accessibility when it comes to these guidelines and protocols. It just takes some consideration and thought.”

Marriott recommends highlighting barriers and bringing solutions forward for discussion suggesting that “people do not often realize they are creating barriers.” Helping them identify fixes goes a long way. 

Best practices for building owners and managers regarding accessibility include assessing the current level of accessibility, communicating any changes meaningfully, meeting with users of the space regularly, engaging with disability and accessibility-related organizations, and educating your staff on how to interact with users respectfully. To learn more about how you can understand the bigger picture and make the built environment more successful, visit

Rebecca Blissett is a writer for the Rick Hansen Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities through the creation of an accessible and inclusive world.


Suggestions for accessibility improvements

Do not block paths of travel with barriers such as planters, caution tape, or A-frame sidewalk signs. Signage with a colour-contrasting base is safer as it is more visible and less of a tripping hazard than an A-frame sign.
Always allow sufficient width between bollards or pylons to enable people with mobility devices or for people walking in pairs (i.e., those communicating through sign language) to pass uninterrupted.
Utilize universal symbols (i.e., do not enter, do not use, etc.)
Post signage at an accessible viewing height where the centre line is 1,500 millimetres from the ground.
Refrain from using all caps on signs. Readability is reduced with all caps because words take on a uniform rectangular shape.
Introduce QR Codes whenever possible to ensure alternative ways of obtaining information (municipal or organization websites, etc.).
Use tactile features (e.g., raised characters/symbols) and braille. 

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