Disability in Canada: Does closing the accessibility gap literally start from the ground up?

by David Korzinski | December 1, 2016 8:30 pm

Nearly 9-in-10 Canadians say a LEED-style program to rate building accessibility would be ‘worthwhile’

December 2, 2016 – Canadians see significant room for improvement in accessibility for people with disabilities in their country, and view accessible design as a top priority for new public buildings. To that end, most see value in incentivizing the construction industry to do better.

While nine-in-ten (92%) view accessibility as a basic human right, Canadians also see the cost and difficulty of either designing fully accessible new buildings – or renovating those that aren’t – as a serious obstacle to making that ideal a reality.

Those are among the findings of a new public opinion poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation. The survey also canvasses perceptions of why people with disabilities are underemployed in this country, and why a significant segment of Canadians – including most of those who have some hiring authority in their jobs – say it’s “understandable” if businesses find it risky to hire people with disabilities.

Key Findings:angus reid institute

Pour la version française, cliquez ici[1]


PART 1[2]: Portrait of physical disabilities in Canada

PART 2[3]: The built environment

PART 3[4]: People with physical disabilities in the workplace

PART 4[5]: Attitudes toward disability

PART 1: Portrait of physical disabilities in Canada

Prevalence of physical disability

When people think about physical disability, their minds may first travel to the obvious: persons in wheelchairs, persons carrying canes. The reality can often be more subtle. That said, there are a significant number of Canadians who deal with physical disabilities in their day-to-day lives. About one-in-ten (9%) consider themselves to have a physical disability, while a slightly larger group (13%) say face mobility or physical challenges that can present difficulties, but don’t see themselves as having a disability.

While people with all types of physical challenges can be found in each of these groups, there are some notable patterns in the types of issues members of each group say they face.

People who self-identify as having a physical disability are four times as likely as those who do not see themselves in this category to say they require a walker, cane or scooter (32% versus 7%, respectively).

Those who do not see themselves as having a disability, on the other hand, report difficulty hearing at twice the rate of those who subscribe to the “disability” label (32% versus 16%, respectively).

The following graph highlights some of the most-reported physical challenges seen in this survey, broken down by how the people reporting them see themselves:

disability in Canada

Beyond any personal challenges they may have, many Canadians have family members or close friends who fall into one of these two categories – either self-identified people with physical disabilities or people with mobility or other difficulties who don’t see themselves in that light – as seen in the following graph.

disability in CanadaThis prevalence is unchanged from those reported in last year’s Angus Reid Institute-Rick Hansen Foundation study, which looked at exposure to disability in greater detail, and can be found here[6].

This year, the ARI-RHF study expanded the sample of those who self-identify as having a physical disability and those who say they have mobility or other challenges but don’t consider it a disability. These larger samples sizes allow for more reliable comparisons between these two sub-groups and the general population.

As will be discussed throughout this report, there are significant differences within this sample, as well as between these two groups and the general population.

Impact on daily life

Perhaps the most notable difference between those who see themselves as having a disability and those who have mobility challenges but don’t use the “disability” label is in the impact on their lives.

Those who identify as having a disability are much more likely to say it has a “major impact” on their lives, while those who don’t see themselves as having a disability are more likely to describe the impact as “moderate” or “minimal”:

disability in Canada

Again, the differences in the type of physical challenge respondents report correlate with the impact they say that challenge has on their daily lives. Those who say it has “minimal impact” are more likely to have difficulty hearing or to be visually impaired, while those who say it has a major impact are more likely to report chronic pain or illness, or difficulty walking (see summary tables at the end of this report).

Awareness of disability

People with physical disabilities understandably tend to be more aware of accessibility issues in Canada than the general population.

Asked whether they’ve noticed any places in their communities in the last six months that they thought would be especially difficult for a person with a physical disability to navigate, just over half of all respondents (52%) say no.

Among people who identify as having a physical disability, however, nearly two-in-three (63%) say they have encountered such obstacle at least once – and for the majority, it’s happened several times:

disability in Canada

For those with physical disabilities or accessibility issues, heightened awareness is a part of life: they are far less likely to say they rarely think about people with physical disabilities, and much more likely to say they’re well-informed about the challenges people with physical disabilities face:

disability in Canada

PART 2: The built environment

Gaps in accessibility and room for improvement

Canadians with physical disabilities face a variety of barriers in their daily lives, from the physical – such as inaccessible housing and transportation situations – to the more existential – such as discrimination from the general public.

When it comes to barriers in the physical world – including housing, transportation, and the accessibility of public spaces – most Canadians generally see “huge” or “a lot of” room for improvement:

disability in Canada

This belief that Canada can do more for people with physical disabilities when it comes to issues of real-world accessibility is reflected in the “accessibility gap:” A metric first constructed in the 2015 Angus Reid Institute-Rick Hansen Foundation study.

The accessibility gap measures the difference between how accessible Canadians perceive various aspects of the built environment in their own communities to be currently, and how accessible they believe these same aspects ought to be.

Asked to consider accessibility on a scale from 1 to 10, most Canadians choose one of the top three numbers (an 8, a 9, or a 10) for how accessible things should be, and considerably fewer choose one of these top three numbers for how accessible places in their communities currently are.

Subtracting the percentage of Canadians who give these high marks to current accessibility from the percentage who give them to ideal accessibility yields the accessibility gap. These gaps have remained largely unchanged in 2016, as seen in the following graph:

disability in Canada

Canadians see smaller, but notable gaps in accessibility at public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, than at private or commercial spaces.

Why such a gap?

So, why do Canadians think their country’s built environment is less accessible than it should be?

The most common explanation is the difficulty of renovating older buildings, selected by almost half of all Canadians (46%). As the following graph indicates, the related concern that addressing accessibility gaps is too expensive is the next-most-popular explanation, followed by the idea that accessibility is not fully understood:

disability in Canada

Canadians with physical disabilities or mobility challenges are slightly more likely than the general population to attribute these gaps to the belief that accessibility itself is not fully understood, rather than cost (see summary tables).

Notably, one-in-four who self-identify as having a physical disability (23%) cite a lack of government enforcement of laws mandating accessibility as a reason for the gap, while those who say they have mobility challenges but don’t consider themselves to have a disability are much less likely to choose this option (15% do so).

Whatever the reasons for the gap between how accessible Canadian spaces are and how accessible Canadians think they ought to be, it’s not for a lack of belief in the importance of accessibility as a concept.

Fewer than one-in-twelve (7%) say accessibility gaps are the result of these issues not being a priority in Canada, and this view is backed up by the fact that almost six-in-ten Canadians (58%) say their country’s goal should be “universal accessibility for everyone whenever this is possible.” Among Canadians with physical disabilities, the total favouring universal access rises to fully seven-in-ten:

disability in Canada

The fact that one-in-three Canadians say cost feasibility is an important consideration when thinking about accessibility suggests they see a tension between these two important ideas.

What’s important in a new building?

In addition to their overall preference for universal access, Canadians overwhelmingly agree with the statement “Accessibility for people with physical disabilities is a basic human right, not a privilege” (92% do so). And when asked to imagine that a new public building was being constructed in their area, most Canadians prioritize the accessibility of that space.

Among a variety of considerations for new buildings in their communities, nearly all Canadians (95%) say accessibility would be “important”. As the following graph suggests, accessibility ranks alongside affordability as the highest priorities. Indeed, more than two-thirds (68%) say each is “very important” (see comprehensive tables[7]).

disability in Canada

On the surface, at least, these two ideas – accessibility and affordability – may seem opposed to one another. Adding features to improve a building’s accessibility can increase costs. At the same time, however, studies show that the costs of modifying workplaces to accommodate people with disabilities tend to be minimal[8].

Fully six-in-ten (61%) say affordability to the taxpayer is one of the two most important considerations for new buildings, while almost half (46%) say the same about accessibility.

Notably, among self-identified Canadians with physical disabilities, the positions of these top two items are reversed. Two-thirds in this group choose accessibility (67%), and 56 per cent choose affordability, as seen in the following graph:

disability in Canada

‘Gold standard’ for accessibility design?

While Canadians place a high priority on the accessibility of public places, it’s an issue that arguably receives less attention than others – including “green” building practices.

One proposal for increasing awareness of accessibility issues involves creating a program similar to LEED[9] – the U.S.-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system that rates buildings based on their energy efficiency and environmental sustainability – for accessibility.

Such a program has been proposed by the government of Ontario[10]. It would award buildings varying levels of certification for meeting or exceeding accessibility standards. Certification would exist in parallel to current building codes, and, like LEED, participation would be voluntary. The idea is that a LEED-style certification will provide an incentive for building owners to make their spaces more accessible, by allowing them to use the certification in marketing materials, and potentially capitalize on new tax breaks governments might introduce for certified buildings.

When asked, Canadians overwhelmingly say they believe a certification of this type would be worthwhile, though the perceived value of such a program varies by whether a person has a disability or not:

disability in Canada

But how effective would a “LEED for accessibility” program be at raising awareness of accessible design? There’s no way to know for certain, but it’s worth noting that relatively few Canadians are aware of LEED itself. Just one-in-twenty (5%) say they “are quite familiar with LEED,” and another one-in-five (19%) say they “know a little bit about it.” Indeed, fully three-fifths of Canadians (61%) say they had never heard of the program until taking this survey (see comprehensive tables[7]).

PART 3: People with physical disabilities in the workplace

Employment risks? Employment myths?

The barriers that prevent Canadians with physical disabilities from participating fully in society extend well beyond the built environment.

Almost three-quarters of Canadians (73%) agree with the statement “there is a lot of prejudice towards people with physical disabilities,” and an even greater number (88%) agree that “it’s a waste not to recognize and promote the potential of people with physical disabilities.”

These more abstract barriers are areas where most Canadians see “huge” or “a lot of” room for improvement:

disability in Canada

One of the most striking findings of this survey is that fully half of Canadians (50%) agree with the statement “It’s understandable that employers feel it is risky to hire people with physical disabilities.”

The total who agree with statement includes three-in-five Canadians ages 18 – 34 (61%) and nearly seven-in-ten (69%) of those who are at least partially responsible for hiring decisions at their current job (see comprehensive tables[7] and the following graph).

disability in Canada

The relatively high level of agreement with this sentiment is reflective of an attitude in Canadian society that may contribute to the chronic unemployment and underemployment[11] people with disabilities face.

When asked to identify the main reasons employers might find it risky to hire people with physical disabilities, Canadians choose three main concerns with roughly equal frequency:

disability in Canada

It should be noted that a 2012 study[12] conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada provides considerable evidence that reasons attributed to tasks being “too difficult” and or the expense involved in making workplaces accessible are largely myths.

Indeed, the ESDC report argues “more education and training” for employers is needed to combat these and other myths[13], suggesting that lack of experience working with people with disabilities may be a more accurate explanation of employers’ reticence to hire people such individuals than other responses provided in this survey.

That said, these perceptions about why employers find it “risky” to hire people with physical disabilities are clearly persistent, even among those Canadians who disagree with the initial statement:

disability in Canada angus reid

Many Canadians who are currently responsible for hiring hold these views. Those who comprise this sample of human-resources-minded individuals tend to put less emphasis on concerns about employers lacking experience working with people with disabilities, and greater-than-average emphasis on perceptions of expense in accommodating these employees and the belief they may take more sick days.

disability in Canada

There are also significant differences between age groups when it comes to opinion on this question.

Older Canadians (those ages 55 and older), for example, largely blame a lack of employer experience (57% in this age group choose this option), while Canadians under 35 are much more likely to say “some tasks may be too difficult” for an employee with a physical disability.

Meanwhile, those in the middle age group (35 – 54) focus on the cost of making a workplace more accessible more than any other factor canvassed, as seen in the graph that follows.

disability in Canada

Roughly one-in-three younger Canadians, 18 to 34, (34%) also note concerns that an employee with a physical disability might work slower than other employees, and one-in-four in the 35-54 age group (26%) express a belief that such an employee would take more sick days (see comprehensive tables for greater detail[14]).

How does hiring people with disabilities affect business?

Regardless of whether Canadians empathize with a perceived risky in hiring people with physical disabilities, the reality is that some employers do feel that way. There are also some that take the opposite approach, making it a priority to recruit and hire people with physical disabilities.

Asked how they would interact with a business in this latter category near them, one-in-three Canadians (32%) say they would try to patronize the company more, compared to one-in-four (25%) who say it wouldn’t be a consideration for them.

Those who disagree with the riskiness premise are especially likely to say they would give more of their business to a company that made a point of hiring people with physical disabilities:

disability in Canada

Among those who self-identify as having a physical disability, the total who would try to patronize the business more rises to 50 per cent, while fewer than three-in-ten (29%) of those who have no disability or mobility challenges say the same:

angus reid institute

Responses to this question also vary significantly by gender, with women more likely to say knowing that a business in their community hired people with physical disabilities would affect their behaviour, and men more likely to say it would not (see comprehensive tables[7]).

angus reid institute

PART 4: Attitudes toward disability

Segmentation analysis

A segmentation analysis of this data uncovers four distinct “mindsets” Canadians have when it comes to issues of disability and accessibility. They are:

As their name implies, the Onside are the group that cares most deeply about people with physical disabilities and the issues that affect them. This group is predominantly comprised of women (62%), but it includes people of all ages, incomes, and education levels – each of these demographics within the Onside is roughly proportional to the general population.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Indifferent – the segment that displays the least empathy toward people with disabilities in this survey. The Indifferent are predominantly men (71%), and they skew somewhat younger than the general population, with fewer members in the 55+ age group and more in the middle and younger groups.

In between these two extremes are the Young Bystanders and the Older Detached. As their names imply, these two groups are divided in part along demographic lines. The Young Bystanders are the group with the largest proportion of respondents under age 35, while the Older Detached have the largest proportion of those 55 and older.

In terms of their attitudes, the Young Bystanders tend to be supportive of the rights of people with disabilities in the abstract, but less supportive when it comes to real-world experiences. The Older Detached, on the other hand, feel somewhat less strongly about principles such as human rights, but are more empathetic toward the lived experiences of people with disabilities – a finding possibly related to their own more-advanced age.

Consider, for example, views on the statement “there is a lot of prejudice towards people with physical disabilities.” As the following graph shows, Young Bystanders are almost as likely to agree with this concept as the Onside, while the Older Detached are more split:

angus reid institute

When presented with a statement about facilities for people with physical disabilities, however, the Young Bystanders are more callous than even the Indifferent, while the Older Detached are the most sympathetic:

angus reid institute

The overall outlooks of these segments reflect some of the general findings about age and gender in this study. Just as women tend to be more well-represented than men in the Onside segment, they also tend to record higher accessibility gaps than men. As was the case last year[15], this is a product of both higher “should” scores and lower “are” scores among women (see summary tables at the end of this report).

Likewise, on the question of overall access in Canada, women and Canadians ages 55 and older are more likely to say universal access should be the goal whenever possible, while men and younger respondents are more split between universality and the idea of weighing costs against the goal of accessibility (see comprehensive tables[7]).

This finding correlates with the views of the segments on this question. The Onside and the Older Detached – both older and more female than the general population – are more inclined to choose “universal access,” while the Young Bystanders are divided, and the Indifferent mostly reject universality as a goal:

angus reid institute

People with physical disabilities or mobility challenges can be found in each of the segments, though they tend more toward the Onside and the Older Detached than the general population. Among only the 493 respondents who either self-identify as having a disability or say they have some kind of challenge that they don’t consider to be a disability, the size of the segments is as follows:

The Onside category includes more people who self-identify as having a disability, while the Indifferent category disproportionately includes those who have some kind of challenge but reject the “disability” label:

angus reid institute


The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.

Click here for the full report including tables, sample size and methodology[16]

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey[17]

For detailed results from the general population sample by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics, click here[18].

For detailed results from the disability booster sample by age, gender, and other demographics, click here[19].

For detailed results by segmentation analysis, click here[20].

Pour la version française, cliquez ici[1]



Ian Holliday, Research Associate: 604.442.3312 ian.holliday@angusreid.org[21] 

Shachi Kurl, Executive Director – Angus Reid Institute: 604.908.1693shachi.kurl@angusreid.org[22]

  1. cliquez ici: http://www.rickhansen.com/%C3%80-notre-sujet/Centre-des-m%C3%A9dias
  2. PART 1: #part-1
  3. PART 2: #part-2
  4. PART 3: #part-3
  5. PART 4: #part-4
  6. here: https://angusreid.org/rhf-accessibility/
  7. see comprehensive tables: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016.11.17_Access_Gen_PopReleaseTables.pdf
  8. tend to be minimal: http://www.esdc.gc.ca/eng/disability/consultations/rethinking_disabilities.shtml
  9. a program similar to LEED: http://www.usgbc.org/leed
  10. government of Ontario: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-announces-plan-to-address-accessibility-issues-1.3099118
  11. chronic unemployment and underemployment: http://www.ccdonline.ca/en/socialpolicy/employment/Employment-Equality9June2014
  12. a 2012 study: http://www.esdc.gc.ca/eng/disability/consultations/rethinking_disabilities.shtml
  13. other myths: http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/documents/en/talent/employer/information/tips/mythsAndFacts_en1.pdf
  14. see comprehensive tables for greater detail: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016.11.17_Access_Gen_PopReleaseTables.pdf
  15. the case last year: https://angusreid.org/rhf-accessibility/
  16. Click here for the full report including tables, sample size and methodology: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016.12.02-RHF-disability.pdf
  17. Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016.11.30-Rick-Hansen-wave-2.pdf
  18. click here: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016.11.17_Access_Gen_PopReleaseTables.pdf
  19. click here: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016.11.03_Access_disability_boosterReleaseTables.pdf
  20. click here: https://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016.11.03_Access_Gen_PopSegReleaseTables.pdf
  21. ian.holliday@angusreid.org: mailto:ian.holliday@angusreid.org
  22. shachi.kurl@angusreid.org: mailto:shachi.kurl@angusreid.org

Source URL: https://angusreid.org/disability-in-canada/