Canadian Consulting Engineer

Building a barrier-free Canada

June 13, 2023
By Kay Penn

There is still much to accomplish.

Floor with safety bumps

Photo © LOGOBOOM / Adobe Stock.

Some 22% of Canadians aged 15 and up live with a disability that limits their daily activities. Accessing transportation, eating at a restaurant or shopping for necessities can involve many challenges. Over the past 20 years, municipal, provincial and territorial governments have developed policies and guidelines aimed at improving accessibility, with regulations covering public and private spaces, including buildings and dwellings. As the Accessible Canada Act moves toward making the country barrier-free by 2040, there has been considerable progress, but there is also still a lot to accomplish.

In 1990, CSA Group published the first edition of CSA B651, Barrier-free design, focusing on how buildings can be designed and constructed—and how products can be manufactured—to improve accessibility. In retrospect, that standard’s initial recommendations—such as installing ramps at main entrances, widening doors, adding contrasting nosings to stairs, extending handrails and expanding washroom stalls—seem rudimentary, but they were important features that helped improve overall access to public and private spaces for people with disabilities.

The standard has been recognized by accessibility advocates, industry and government stakeholders and referenced in the National Building Code (NBC) and legislation across the country.

Earlier this year, in collaboration with Accessibility Standards Canada, CSA Group published the latest edition, CSA/ASC B651:23: Accessible design for the built environment. The relevant technical subcommittee, a third of whose members live with a disability, developed and updated numerous requirements and recommendations to increase both safety and accessibility. The resulting edition supports universal design principles, so all people can access the built environment to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age, size, ability or disability.

Among the changes introduced in the 2023 edition are updates of dimensions based on current anthropometric data (i.e. relating to the proportions of the human body). The standard’s annex provides details on the anthropometrics of mobility aid users, including reach ranges for a person in a wheeled mobility device, walkway widths for people using crutches, walkers or a service animal, detection spaces for people using long white canes and dimensions and turning areas of wheeled mobility devices.

Requirements and recommendations have been updated.

The new edition also provides a detailed explanation of luminance colour contrast and guidance on minimum contrast levels for general, glossy or shiny surfaces, such as brushed stainless steel.

Further, CSA/ASC B651:23 provides updated guidance on functional and cognitive barriers, recommending simple and logical spatial layouts with consistent features, e.g. the same location for washrooms on each floor. It includes recommendations for measuring excessive noise interferences and improving both indoor and outdoor lighting.

Other updates include guidance for addressing functional and cognitive barriers, for tactile direction indicator positioning and controls for power-assisted doors and water fountains, for water bottle filing stations and for the minimum size of platform lifts along an accessible path of travel.

Over the next decade and beyond, CSA Group plans to work in lockstep with industry and regulators to help ensure its portfolio of accessible built environment standards continues to strengthen, while also applying an ‘accessibility lens’ across a range of other standards. The organization is investing in accessibility research in such areas as connected and automatic vehicles, the effects of powered mobility devices on loading and design requirements for platform lifts and the impacts of new technologies for self-service devices on usability for people with disabilities, just to name a few.

Standards play a critical role in helping to build a barrier-free Canada. CSA Group is continuously looking for new volunteer members to contribute expertise and lived experiences to develop the accessibility standards of tomorrow—and to share feedback during the public review process.

Kay Penn is CSA Group’s director of health and safety standards. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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