Disability and Accessibility: Canadians see significant room for improvement in communities where they live

Disability and Accessibility: Canadians see significant room for improvement in communities where they live
Canadians view accessibility for people with disabilities as a human right; but see big gaps in delivering it

December 3, 2015 – The vast majority of Canadians want their communities to be fully accessible for people with disabilities, and believe their country should be a leader on this front.

But they also see massive gaps between this ideal, and the reality people with mobility challenges face where they live.

They also recognize barriers to employment and education facing people with disabilities, but one-in-two say “it’s understandable” if businesses feel it’s risky to hire employees with these challenges.

And while most Canadians have experienced some exposure to people with physical disabilities in their day-to-day lives, they also vastly under-estimate the pervasiveness disability in this country.

These are among the findings of a new national survey canvassing disability and accessibility issues conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with the Rick Hansen Foundation.

Key findings:

  • Nearly one-in-four Canadians (23%) surveyed say they have either a physical disability or mobility challenges, while more than half of the population (55%) has some degree of exposure to physical disability in their day-to-day life – either personally or through their family, social or work networkRHF1metho
  • Canadians significantly under-estimate the prevalence of disability among the national population: a full majority peg it at a fraction (1 in 25 or fewer) of the official estimate of roughly one-in-seven
  • The public sees vast room for improvement in terms of various barriers affecting the disabled, identifying large gaps between the real-world accessibility and the ideal
  • Canadians can be grouped into four attitudinal segments on disability and accessibility issues: the On-side, the Younger Bystanders, the Older Detached, and the Indifferent

This summary report is divided into five sections:

  • Part 1 – Public perceptions of disability
  • Part 2 – Segmentation analysis of these perceptions
  • Part 3 – Barriers and gaps in accessibility
  • Part 4 – Exposure to disability in day-to-day life
  • Part 5 – Where disability sits on the public agenda


PART ONE: Public perceptions

As it turns out, Canadians vastly under-estimate the size and breadth of disability in their country. The actual disability prevalence figure is estimated at roughly one-in-seven Canadians (according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Survey on Disabilities, 2012). The following graph, in turn, displays survey respondents’ own best estimate of the prevalence of physical disabilities in Canada:


So, the vast majority of Canadians under-estimate this, with nearly six-in-ten (58%) pegging it at a fraction of the actual number (guessing 1 in 25 or fewer).

As noted, more than half (55%) of Canadians have some level of exposure to disability in their lives – either themselves, at home, in their extended family, or in their social circles. This personal exposure clearly influences perceptions of the scope of physical disability:


Canadians are more aware that the prevalence of physical disability in this country is increasing, likely reflecting the attention given to the aging of the population:


Once again, perceptions vary considerably with personal exposure; whereas two-in-three of those with some experience with disability recognize the numbers are growing, a majority (52%) of those with no personal exposure actually believes it is staying the same.

Attitudes about disability in Canada

A separate line of inquiry asked respondents their views regarding challenges people with disabilities face in Canadian society. The resulting responses paint a largely positive picture of Canadians’ attitudes toward disability issues:

Angus Reid Institute

Among the notable findings:

  • A full majority of Canadians (56%) “strongly agree” that accessibility for people with physical disabilities is a human right
  • Nearly as many (49%) feel strongly that it should be a high priority for Canada to do whatever it can to ensure everyone can fully participate.

These fundamental statements of principle meet with solid agreement among Canadians from all walks of life, but there are some notable differences in the intensity of agreement by gender and across generations. Specifically, women and older Canadians are much more likely to strongly agree with these rights arguments than men and younger Canadians. (This pattern endures through the range of issues assessed, as we’ll see.)

Public opinion was more divided, however, on the two, more concrete statements:

Angus Reid Institute

While the majority disagree that they seldom notice disabled people accessing disabled facilities, the number of people who agree with this sentiment is significant (39% in total). This is especially the case among those who have no personal exposure to disability, almost half (45%) of whom agree.

But easily the most polarizing attitudinal statement in the survey is “It’s understandable that employers feel it is risky to hire people with physical disabilities.” Fully half of Canadians think this way.

Agreement is conspicuously high among Canadians under 25 years of age (74%) and among those with lower levels of formal education (57%, compared to 39% of those with a university degree). Interestingly, there is very little difference in perceptions on this issue by one’s personal exposure to disability/challenges, with fairly significant levels of agreement across the board. Even among those who have a physical disability or challenge, fully 50 per cent agree that it’s understandable for employers to feel it’s risky to hire them.


PART TWO: Canadian mindsets on disability issues

The Angus Reid Institute conducted a special segmentation (or cluster) analysis. Respondents are grouped or “segmented” based on shared attitudinal characteristics. This can powerfully illustrate the different unique “mindsets” surrounding the issue at hand – in this case, issues concerning physical disability and accessibility.

Using responses to the attitudinal statements this analysis reveals four distinct segments in terms of Canadians’ perspectives on the disability/accessibility issues. These segments are described as:Angus Reid Institute

  • The On-side
  • Younger Bystanders
  • The Older Detached
  • The Indifferent.

These population segments are summarized in the infographic on the following page.

Notably, people with physical disabilities are well represented in each of the four attitudinal groupings. Indeed, the segments do not differ markedly in terms of personal experience with physical disability.

At the same time, the segments’ personal exposure to disability via family or social networks does vary, highlighting a relationship between exposure and empathy and support for disability concerns.

Overall, the On-side are those who care most deeply about and empathize most strongly with people living with physical disabilities. Members of this segment are also more generally socially engaged and empowered. Perhaps comfortingly, this is the largest segment, representing one-third (34%) of the population. It is predominantly female, and somewhat older.

In the middle are the Young Bystanders and the Older Detached, who are largely distinguished from each other by the areas that are of greatest concern to them: Ideals of accessibility and human rights for the former and lived experiences for the latter.

Angus Reid Institute

Specifically, the Young Bystanders have what might be called a “more idealist outlook” in that they are highly attuned to human rights arguments in support of removing barriers. The Older Detached, meanwhile, seem to “get it” at a more basic level, likely at least partly a reflection of their age, and are more critical of real-life barriers facing people living with disabilities.

For example, consider the segments’ responses to the statement “It’s a waste not to recognize and promote the potential of people with physical disabilities,” as seen in the following graph:

Angus Reid Institute

While a majority of each segment agrees with this statement, the Older Detached are notably less enthusiastic than Young Bystanders. This pattern is reversed in responses to the more concrete statement “It’s understandable that employers feel it is risky to hire people with physical disabilities”:

Angus Reid Institute

On this question, Young Bystanders are more stringent than even the Indifferent.

In sharpest contrast, the Indifferent, as the segment name implies, are exactly that on a range of the issues examined in this research. This segment is the smallest and half of its membership are men under 55 – a cohort with consistently indifferent views on the range of issues we’ve looked at in this study. Indeed, they edge towards “hostile” in some important respects:

  • More than two-thirds (68%) disagree that people with disabilities face a lot of discrimination
  • The same number (68%) reject Canada aspiring to an international leadership role on accessibility issues


PART THREE: Barriers and the “Accessibility gap”

Beyond probing Canadians’ attitudes, this in-depth study also canvassed Canadians’ views on barriers – defined as “anything that might be in the way or prevent someone’s full participation in life” – that people with disabilities might face.

They were also asked to reflect on the accessibility (the ease or difficulty of getting in and out of public places and to fully use the services and facilities once inside) of various locations in their community.

Perceptions of Barriers

Respondents were asked to indicate to what extent they see “room for improvement” on nine potential barriers, and then were asked to select which two they see as most important to improve.

The biggest barrier facing people with disabilities, according to Canadians, is opportunities for employment. Two-in-five Canadians surveyed selected this as the first or second most important. And, fully 57 per cent said there was “huge” (20%) or “a lot” (37%) of room for improvement on this front.

Further results revealing each of the barriers canvassed and their perceived room for improvement are seen in the following graph:

Angus Reid Institute

Canadians’ perceptions on the importance of these barriers differs sharply by gender and age: women are consistently more likely to see lots of room for improvement (an average 15 points higher than men) as are older Canadians (an average 10 points higher than younger). These skews are loudly amplified when taken together, with older women and younger men holding almost “night and day” outlooks.

Accessibility: The public’s ratings and the biggest perceived gapsAngus Reid Institute

This survey asked respondents to rate both the current accessibility of various aspects of their communities and how accessible each of these should be, using a 10-point scale, where 10 represented “completely accessible to everyone regardless of physical disability:”

  • 28 per cent assigned a high current accessibility rating – but fewer than 1-in-20 (4%) gave their community a perfect “10.”79 per cent of Canadians surveyed said their own community should ideally rate an 8, 9 or 10 on this same scale. Fully 47 per cent say their community should be a “10”.
  • These ratings produce an “accessibility gap” of 51 points. This gap is simply the spread between the 79 per cent who see a very high rating as ideal versus the 28 per cent who think the current reality measures up. The greater the gap, the more the ideal falls short of the actual level of accessibility of a given place.This accessibility gap varies considerably across the attitudinal segments, as seen in the following graph:

Angus Reid Institute

The community-wide accessibility gap also varies considerably across other demographics:

  • Data by region and by community size shows generally consistent ratings of accessibility. (A look at the country’s three largest cities also shows largely consistent ratings, with Montreal respondents giving lower ratings to current accessibility (21% choose an 8, 9, or 10, compared to 32% each in Toronto and Vancouver)
  • As would be expected based on some of the earlier findings, the gap score is higher among women (59) than among men (41), reflecting both higher ideal and lower current ratings from the former

The accessibility gap scores are fairly consistent across age groups, but are wider among those with university educations and, to a lesser extent, among those with higher household incomes

Angus Reid InstituteSpecific accessibility ratings

Beyond overall accessibility in Canadian communities, this study also drills down on perceptions of current and ideal accessibility at seven specific community venues.

The results show consistent high ratings for how accessible these venues should be – ranging from a high of 86 per cent assigning an 8, 9 or 10 for “getting into public buildings such as hospitals and libraries” to a low of 73 per cent for “opportunities for sports and recreation”.

Canadians give much more negative — and more variable — ratings for the current accessibility of these venues in their communities, book-ended with 58 per cent assigning high marks for public buildings and just 16 per cent assigning a high rating to the current accessibility of sports/recreational opportunities.

These accessibility ratings and resulting accessibility gap scores for the various community venues assessed are presented on the following graph:

Angus Reid Institute

Canada’s overall accessibility

So, how do Canadians’ rate the country as a whole in terms of overall accessibility for people with physical disabilities? Here, respondents were offered a scale ranging from “100% complete accessibility” down to “zero accessibility.

The largest individual group (31%) chooses “70% accessibility” when thinking about Canada as a whole, but there is a wide variety in responses, with only 2 per cent choosing “100% accessibility” and only 5 per cent choosing “90% accessibility.”

A majority of respondents (52%) rate Canada as either 60 (21%) or 70 (31%) per cent accessible overall.

This perception of reality differs starkly from the ideal Canadians set for their country. A full majority (53%) of those surveyed said the goal should be “universal accessibility for everyone wherever this is possible,” compared to fewer than one-in-ten who say accessibility should not be a priority:

Angus Reid Institute

Once again, the gender and generation gaps are profound: six-in-ten (61%) women opt for universal accessibility to the full extent possible versus just better than four-in-ten (45%) men.

The number advocating universal accessibility to the full extent possible increases steadily with age:

  • 49 per cent of younger Canadians (aged 18-35)
  • 52 per cent between the ages of 35-54
  • 58 per cent of those aged 55+

Looking at age/gender together we see women over 35 firmly of the view that access should be universal whenever possible (63% took this view) whereas men under 55 years of age were just as likely to consider the “where cost feasible” option as most appropriate.

Interestingly, views on this overall question do not vary by one’s personal exposure to disability. Even among those with no personal exposure, “universal access” is the most frequent response (52%).

Of course, this is a major differentiating factor among the attitudinal segments:

  • The On-side opt for universal access wherever possible (79%)
  • The Young Bystanders and the Older Detached are both evenly split between this and access being “a priority but with cost feasibility in mind” (44% and 47% among the Bystanders and 48% versus 46% among the Detached).
  • And cost feasibility is highest in the minds of the Indifferent (52%)


PART FOUR: Experience and exposure to disabilityAngus REid Institute

Regardless of their views about disability and accessibility, one-in-four (23%) Canadians who participated in this study identified themselves as living with some sort of physical disability:

  • one-in ten (9%) said they have a “physical disability”
  • one-in-seven (14%) indicated a “mobility or other physical, vision or hearing challenge” but said they don’t consider themselves to be disabled

Follow-up questions showed a range of issues, including:

  • general mobility: problems walking, the need for a cane or other aid, limited flexibility etc
  • sensory issues: hearing, sight
  • others: i.e. chronic pain, low dexterity etc.

This distinction between disability and other physical challenge – and specifically the fact that a larger number select the latter characterization – is interesting. Those self-identifying as having a “physical disability” are more likely to cite a mobility-related issue – for example six-in-ten said they have trouble walking, and many others indicated needing a mobility aid.

Among those who describe themselves as having a physical challenge, meanwhile, many cite a sensory disability, but large numbers of this group also report the same mobility-related issues as those self-identifying as having a physical disability.

Clearly “what we call it” matters, increasingly so in the context of Canada’s aging population and the baby boom hitting 70.

People with disabilities: older, poorer, less educated

As would be expected, age is a huge factor in people’s personal experience with physical disability and/or mobility or other physical challenges. One-in-three (31%) of those 55 or older reported a physical disability (11%) or challenge (20%). This figure declines to one-in-four (23%) of the middle age grouping and down to one-in-seven (14%) of those under 35.

Angus Reid Institute

There is also a pronounced socio-economic skew in Canadians’ personal experience with physical disability and challenges.

The reported incidence is almost double among those with lower levels of formal education. It is also higher among those living in lower household incomes:

Angus Reid Institute

Importantly, this overall socio-economic pattern is consistently observed within each of the major age groups, and is not simply an artifact of the reality of higher prevalence of physical disability/challenges among older people.

These findings are similar to those of previous academic studies on the intersection of poverty and disability. While there are no doubt many factors that contribute to making disability and accessibility concerns a “non-elite” issue, key contributors are the barriers to accessing education and employment that people with disabilities face.

Most have some exposure to physical disability

Beyond personal experience, about one-in-six Canadians (15%) – live with someone who has a physical disability/challenge. This includes one-in-three of those who have such challenges themselves.

About a third of all Canadians surveyed said they have a family member or close friend who is physically disabled or otherwise physically challenged. Further, a total of 14 per cent said one or more of their current co-workers (or classmates) has a physical disability.

Taken all together, a total of 55 per cent of Canadians have some personal experience or exposure to physical disability:

Angus Reid Institute

As we’ve seen through much of the other survey findings, one’s own personal experience and level of exposure to physical disability colours views and attitudes on many of the related issues.


PART FIVE: Personal resonance and the public agenda

So when they’re not being prompted to participate in a survey on the subject, just how much do people think about the issue of accessibility for people with physical disabilities?

Overall, 14 per cent of Canadians surveyed said this is something they think about “often.” Half (49%) said they do so “sometimes,” 31 per cent “rarely,” and 7 per cent “never.”

The issue is – not surprisingly – most resonant for those who have a physical disability, but is much less so among those who have a mobility challenge they do not consider a physical disability (underlining the importance of this distinction).

Canadians who have neither disabilities nor mobility challenges, but do have some exposure to disability are much more likely to give a lot of thought to these issues than their counterparts with no exposure at all:

Angus Reid Institute

Most Canadians say they don’t feel highly informed about accessibility issues, and again, levels of engagement are strongly tied to their own level of exposure to physical disability:

Angus Reid Institute

The public agenda

So where do disability and accessibility issues place on Canadians’ public agenda? Asked to indicate how much of a priority they consider this to be for Canada today:

Angus Reid Institute

Overall, just over one-third (36%) of Canadians consider disability and accessibility to be high priority. The population groups attaching the highest priority include:

  • Those with a physical disability (53%) or those with some personal exposure: (41%)
  • The On-side attitudinal segment (52%)
  • Older Canadians (45%)
  • Lower income Canadians (45%) and those with less formal education (40%)
  • Women (41%)

Finally, the research also assessed the perceived importance of two broad issues concerning physical disability against four other social policy issues. The six issues received similar importance ratings from surveyed Canadians:

Angus Reid Institute

Interestingly, Canadians with a physical disability or some exposure to physical disability in their lives attach higher importance to all of these social issues. This same pattern is observed among those we have called the On-side: this group, most strongly in favour of enhancing accessibility in Canadian communities is also voice the strongest support for addressing other important challenges facing Canadian society. 


Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for comprehensive data tables

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey


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.


The Rick Hansen Foundation was established in 1988, following the completion of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour, to continue raising funds and awareness to create a world without barriers for people with disabilities. The organization’s mission is to inspire leaders, influencers and the public to join Rick Hansen in creating a global movement to remove barriers and liberate the amazing potential of people with disabilities.


Image – Marianne Bos/ Unsplash

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