Blyth's Sawchuk works to become Hansen accessibility expert - April 26, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Blyth’s Julie Sawchuk is now a completed assignment and a passed exam away from being a Rick Hansen Foundation certified accessibility assessor.
Sawchuk has just returned from two weeks in British Columbia, where the course was offered at Vancouver Community College. Once she’s passed the course and is officially certified, Sawchuk hopes to offer her services locally – not just assessing the accessibility of buildings, but also educating on the need for accessibility during all stages of a project.
With the help of generous sponsors, a GoFundMe campaign and some of her family’s own funds, Sawchuk spent 14 days in Vancouver learning the ins and outs of assessing accessibility. She feels the work she’ll soon be able to do could very well be the next phase of her career as an educator that was interrupted in 2015 when she was hit by a car while cycling and paralyzed from the chest down.
After the two weeks of instruction and practical work, she’s now working on her final assignment, which is to conduct a comprehensive accessibility assessment on Vancouver Community College, where she took the course. Once she’s successfully completed that assignment, she’ll have to take an exam through the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in order to be certified.
Sawchuk says the course is the only one of its kind in Canada and she was part of its first class, meaning they have been “guinea pigs” for some of the instruction. She feels she has learned a lot, not just about universal design, but about disabilities in general.
As a Rick Hansen Ambassador, Sawchuk became interested in taking the course. Sawchuk was made aware of the course and felt it could benefit Huron County. Achieving Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification, or even the foundation’s gold status, she said, could serve not only as a badge of honour for a business, but as an economic development tool that would attract those with accessibility needs to certified businesses.
The process takes every aspect of the building into account, including parking, travel corridors and washrooms.
Sawchuk says that certification isn’t required by law. So, if a business requests an assessment and doesn’t achieve it, no one has to know. If a business does get certified, however, they can then use that certification to attract people to the business.
The assessment takes a number of factors into account, like parking, public transit accessibility, indoor and outdoor paths of travel, wayfinding and sanitary room access. The accessibility in these categories is then graded, which leads to the assessment’s final score and a business’s certification.
When the class began, the first thing the foundation did, Sawchuk said, was try to put those taking the course (Sawchuk was in a class of 16 – many of whom were building or design professionals and were not differently-abled) into the shoes of someone with different abilities than their own.
Sawchuk, on her first day, was given vision impairment goggles so she could experience trying to get around the college blind. It was very challenging, she said, but it helped her learn what it would take to make a building accessible to someone with impaired vision.
She had trouble getting around (she was unable to use a visual impairment cane due to being in a wheelchair) so a blind member of the class told Sawchuk to follow him and he led her out the building and into the parking lot. Sawchuk jokes that the process was literally the blind leading the blind.
Similarly, those who were able to walk tried to get around the building in wheelchairs so they could find out what changes worked and what parts of the building needed improvement.
From there, she was able to learn more about universal design and how, if accessibility is considered from the first stages of a building’s design, people don’t even notice how accessible it is if it’s done correctly.
Because Sawchuk was one of only a few in the class with different needs, she actually taught the class on one of the days. She spoke about accessible washrooms and optimal support bar placement.
When certified, Sawchuk plans to start her own business: Sawchuk Accessibility Solutions. There, she hopes to offer accessibility assessments for businesses or municipalities that want them. She hopes to start with her nearby municipality of North Huron and its recreation facilities.
When Sawchuk begins assessing buildings and handing out certifications, the foundation will always have the final say. She said that when she scores a building, her work is reviewed by the foundation to ensure that she’s reviewing businesses properly.
However, as a teacher for a number of years, she said that she’s hoping one day to serve as a speaker in local high schools. Whether it’s budding architects, plumbers, contractors or designers, she says the more education on accessibility and universal design that can be done at that early level, the better.
Not only that, but part of the training was also disability awareness training, which would put those trained in the right mindset and attitude to assist those with disabilities. This would ensure that while a business might be accessible in terms of its design, its employees would also be trained to help those with different needs.
And while the course helped Sawchuk learn more about her life’s potential next act, what she experienced in British Columbia helped her know that accessibility is on the minds of many, which made her feel good.
“I learned so much there, but mostly I learned that I’m not alone,” she said. Hearing from planners and other professionals who are working to make the world more accessible, she said, gave her “warm, fuzzy feelings” inside.
For more information on the program, or the foundation itself, visit rickhansen.com.