Accessible Heritage—Sustainable Culture

Case Study prepared by Nikki Zhang, Carleton University

Accessible Heritage, an Imperative for Sustainable Heritage Conservation: Ontario Historical Society

Keywords: Universal design, Heritage, Museums, Cultural Sustainability, Ontario

LESSONS LEARNED Canada, as a nation, is actively addressing the essential issue of achieving universal accessibility. Universal design principles must be an integral part of sustainable heritage conservation practices as well. Universal design, or inclusive design, are umbrella terms used for creating environments, products or systems that all people can freely utilise[i]. Universal design is not just for people with disabilities. All people, at some point, will benefit from accessibility services—such as from injury, ageing, caring for children, being family/friend to persons with disabilities etc.[ii] Similarly, achieving heritage accessibility is much more than adding elevators and ramps, as heritage encompasses everything from natural landscapes to ceremonial traditions. Making heritage available for future generations is the core purpose behind sustainable conservation practises, which should include the participation of people from all ages and abilities. It is important to remember that people are not disabled; rather, it is poorly designed environments that create barriers which disable people. Furthermore, the sustainability benefits of achieving heritage accessibility is not only in the cultural domain, but environmental and economic as well. Looking at Ontario Historical Society’s Accessible Heritage Initiative is a great starting point for understanding the importance of universal design for sustainable heritage conservation, and getting a sense of Ontario’s dedication in achieving barrier-free goals.

Case Study Presentation

Accessible Heritage Initiative by the Ontario Historical Society

Web Address:

The objective of Accessible Heritage Initiative is to help make Ontario’s history and heritage accessible to people of all abilities.

 DESCRIPTION The Accessible Heritage Initiative was launched in 2008, with the publication of the Accessible Heritage Tool Kit, a resource to help heritage, culture and tourism organizations achieve barrier-free access. It was developed in partnership by the Ontario Historical Society and the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario in response to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). Because the Ontario Historical Society is a non-profit corporation and charity, their activities are mostly advocacy and education based.

Their work includes:

  • Accessible Heritage Tool Kit: a practical resource that can be tailored to meet the needs of heritage organizations with varying levels of resources, scope or experience. The publication is divided into 6 modules:
    • Module 1 – The Legislation
    • Module 2 – Understanding Disability and Barriers
    • Module 3 – Accessibility and Accommodation
    • Module 4 – Communication and Disability Issues
    • Module 5 – A Blueprint for Accessibility Planning
    • Module 6 – Checklists, Alternate Formats, Further Resources
  • Customer Service Standard Educational Workshops: to launch and promote the tool kit to organizations throughout Ontario.
  • Access Beyond the Ramp article series for the OHS Bulletin: articles and cases studies about various heritage related accessibility issues. Available for free online (see link in SOURCES below).
  • Webinars: Access – Beyond the Ramp Webinar was presented in November 2014 by John Rae, accessibility advocate and author of Access Beyond the Ramp article series.

Ontario Historical Society Logo (Retrieved Dec 16 2014 from:


1888 | Establishment of the Ontario Historical Society
2005 | Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act
2007, March 30th | Canada becomes a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[iii]
2009, December 15 | Last amendment of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act
2008 | Accessible Heritage Initiative launched
2008 | Accessible Heritage – An Accessibility Tool Kit For Ontario’s Heritage Organizations and Institutions published by The Ontario Historical Society in partnership with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario
2012, January 1st | Accessibility Standard for Customer Service (ASCS) implemented by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure: Effective for businesses & organizations with one or more employees
2014, January 1st | New ASCS requirements: Effective for all public sector and large Ontario businesses
2025, January 1st | Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act implementation goal


Organizer: Ontario Historical Society

Partner: Accessibility Directorate of Ontario

Policies: Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Ontario Human Rights Code, Canadian Human Rights Act, United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Communities of interest: heritage properties, historic sites, museums, parks and recreations, tourism industry, sustainable development, designers, urban planners, policy makers, educators, human rights organizations, children, elders, persons with disabilities, family and friends


Service dog for the blind at Doors Open Ottawa 2014 (Retrieved Dec 16 2014 from:

Council of Canadians with Disabilities Member Organizations: BC Coalition of Persons with Disabilities (BCCPD), Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities (SVOPD), Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities (MLPD), Citizens with Disabilities — Ontario, Confédération des Organismes de Personnes Handicapées du Québec (COPHAN), Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities (NSLEO), PEI Council of People with Disabilities, Coalition of Persons with Disabilities–NFLD and Labrador (COD), NWT Disabilities Council, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD), DisAbled Women’s Network Canada (DAWN Canada), National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), National Network for Mental Health (NNMH), People First of Canada, Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada

HERITAGE—ACCESSIBILITY When considering the issue of accessibility in heritage, one usually thinks about interventions on historic buildings or heritage sites. For example, installing an elevator shaft in the central gallery of a building often requires major irreversible structural modifications, but placing it in a faraway corner does not fulfill the AODA principles of equality and dignity. However, the scope of both heritage, and accessibility, is much broader. Heritage encompasses a wide range of cultural assets, including: urban landscapes, national parks, railways crossings, bridges, canals, archeological sites, art, music, traditions, etc. It could be natural or built, tangible or intangible; all of which should be taken into consideration. Some of these are more difficult to provide access for than others. Just as there are diverse forms of heritage, there is also a wide range of accessibility needs beyond the physical—such as invisible disabilities, mental illness, communication disorders and more. While there is a long way to go for achieving true inclusion for heritage conservation and Canada as a whole, improving understanding and advocacy is a major part of the process. Beyond physical access, information should be available in alternative formats such as large print, ASL, braille, etc. The Accessible Heritage Tool Kit has practical guidelines and resources regarding these aspects. What is most important to understand is that making heritage accessible is not an additional cost, but imperative to making heritage sustainable as well.


LEFT: Tactile Tour, ROM, Toronto. RIGHT: ASL interpretation provided for the Museum Highlights Tour, ROM, Toronto. (Retrieved Dec 16 2014 from:

SUSTAINABILITY The socio-cultural sustainability benefits of preserving heritage is self-explanatory, but what we must not forget is that culture belongs to everyone. As stated by UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located”[iv]. Having equal and dignified access to heritage is also imperative to social sustainability. Consider intangible heritage and sense of place. Keeping a place alive with community involvement is as important to preserving heritage value as its physical structure, and people of all abilities must be able to fully participate.

To remove barriers in access, we must first remove barriers in perception. Accessibility is not an additional cost, but synergistic to sustainability objectives.

A major component of environmental sustainability is preserving diversity, which includes the human genome. This is a part of ‘biocultural diversity’, a concept which embraces all variances present in the world, without discriminating their source[v]. Our built environment should be supportive of human diversity. Differently-abled populations have history and culture that should be visible and shared. An essential step is to remove the barriers that inhibit different cultures from interacting. Deaf culture for example, does not recognize deafness as a disability, but a way of life. They have a developed community, as well as rich and comprehensive languages. Providing alternative formats of information, such as ASL, or making sure that all people can fully participate in activities, is a way to facilitate interaction between people with diverse experiences and preserve cultural diversity. Most importantly, improving access is not only beneficial for persons with disabilities. In urban areas, universal design leads to the creation of more pedestrian friendly environments and so contributes to the reduction of vehicle pollution. In museums like the Art Gallery of Ontario and Royal Ontario Museum (both in Toronto), tactile and multi-sensory tours are not only offered for visually impaired patrons, but brings unique experiences to everyone[vi].


Multi-sensory Tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Retrieved Dec 16 2014 from:

Economically, the benefits are both intuitively and statistically significant. With the implementation of the AODA, by 2025, places with barriers will no longer be allowed to service the public. However, organizations should aim to do more than meeting the legal standards. Accessible tourism is also a growing market as the Canadian population is ageing. It is projected that, in 20 years, 40% of the Ontario income will be represented by persons with disabilities[vii]. Additionally, universal design is a creative platform that can lead to more enjoyable environments for all people[viii]. The new entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg are just two examples of inclusive design and architectural excellence. Barrier free public spaces, such as parks and playgrounds, are also safer and more comfortable for everyone, especially children, parents with strollers and elders.



MEASUREMENT The evaluation of the Accessible Heritage Initiative will consider two factors: rights of persons with disabilities and social sustainability.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities outlined the following 8 General principles (Article 3)[ix]:

UN CRPD General principles

Fulfillment by the Accessible Heritage Initiative

(a) Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons; Module 3 of the Accessible Heritage Tool Kit provides education about accessibility and accommodations based on the principles of respect for personal dignity, which is also a part of the AODA Customer Service Standard Principles (Dignity, Independence, Integration, and Equal opportunity).
(b) Non-discrimination; Module 1 states that discrimination is prohibited as according to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act, inducing information about different kinds of discrimination.
(c) Full and effective participation and inclusion in society; This is an important part of social sustainability, and is talked about throughout the Access Beyond the Ramp articles, such as Inclusive Programming and Multi-Sensory Tours in museums. In the tool kit, Module 2 has guidelines for resolving barriers to inclusion such as: attitudinal barriers, architectural barriers, physical barriers, communication barriers, information barriers, technological barriers and policy/procedure/practice barriers. (Also addressed by AODA principle of integration.)
(d) Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity; Access Beyond the Ramp article 2 speaks to museums about increasing representation and bringing visibility to persons with disabilities and their history.
(e) Equality of opportunity; (Also addressed by AODA principle of equal opportunity.)
(f) Accessibility; This is the main objective of the tool kit, which addresses accessibility and accommodation needs for different kinds of disabilities.
(g) Equality between men and women; Unspecified.
(h) Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities. Although the initiative does not specifically deal with this issue, it does promote increasing visibility and representation of differently abled culture in museums.

Dr. Chris Landorf developed a comprehensive evaluation criteria for the social sustainability of historic urban environments [x]:

Dimension Characteristics Fulfillment of Applicable Criteria
Social Equity Access to services, facilities and opportunities The initiative deals with both social and community infrastructure, including education, social services, cultural events, historic resources and recreation facilities. Module 3 and Module 5 in the Accessible Heritage Tool Kit are dedicated to making the social equity factor a reality.
Level of institutional stability and flexibility The stability of the initiative is ensured by presence of the AODA, Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as the fact that inclusivity is a continues effort in the interest of human rights and sustainability.
Social Coherence Strength of networks, participation, identification and tolerance Officially, the initiative is supported by the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario and other legal stakeholders. Module 1 of the tool kit provides information on related provincial legislations. Unofficially, there is a network of organizations involved in achieving related objectives. Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada integrates accessibility in their guidelines for building and cultural landscape interventions wherever applicable. The U.S. National Park Service, as well, has published Making Historic Properties Accessible (Preservation Brief 32). Although these are mainly focused on mobility barriers in built heritage, they show that the accessibility agenda is supported in the heritage conservation community. On a local level, Ontario’s Doors Open events is an example of active participation in improving integration.
Level of empowerment and accountability The Access Beyond the Ramp article series and webinar speaks to the engagement and accountability of the program to continue activity. For heritage organizations in Ontario, Module 4 of the tool kit aims to help organizations communicate with disability groups.
Basic Needs Objective satisfaction of basic needs Built environment quality is a factor in basic needs (other than housing, nutrition, health etc.), where inclusiveness is a component. Module 2 of the tool kit educates about different types of disabilities and the types of barriers that interfere with their needs and rights.
Subjective satisfaction of basic needs Subjective satisfaction is dependent on the perceived importance of basic needs criterion by users. Of which, inclusivity should be considered imperative to cultural sustainability. The Access Beyond the Ramp article series addresses possible perceptual differences by bringing attention to issues that may not be considered as important by some, but is a basic need for certain populations. For examples, the necessity of tactile access for blind museum patrons.


Academic Articles/Books

  • Darcy, S., & Dickson, T. J. (2009). A whole-of-life approach to tourism: The case for accessible tourism experiences. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 16, 32–44. DOI 10.1375/jhtm.16.1.32
  • Landorf, Chris (2011). “Evaluating Social Sustainability in Historic Urban Environments.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 17.5. 463-477.
  • Harmon, David, 2007, “A Bridge Over the Chasm: Finding Ways to Achieve Integrated Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 13. 4–5: 380–392.
  • Steinfeld, E., & Maisel, J. L. (2012) Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 Official Documents

  • Access ON. (2014, April). A Guide to the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation. Retrieved Dec, 16, 2014, from
  • ServiceOntario. (2009, Dec 15). Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from E-laws Ontario:
  • United Nations. (2006, December 13 ). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved Dec, 16, 2014, from United Nations Treaty Collection:
  • United Nations General Assembly. (2006, December 13). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol. New York: United Nations.


  • Disabilities, C. o. (2013). Member Organizations. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from Council of Canadians with Disabilities:
  • Government of Ontario. (2014). Access Programs and Services. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from ROM:
  • Queen’s Printer for Ontario. (2008). About the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure:
  • Spencer, A. (2014). A Message from the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from Ontario Historical Society:
  • The Ontario Historical Society. (2014). About. Retrieved Nov 10, 2014, from The Ontario Historical Society:
  • The Ontario Historical Society. (2014). Accessible-Heritage. Retrieved Dec 16, 2014, from The Ontario Historical Society:
  • The Ontario Historical Society. (2014). Part 4 | Expand your Horizons: Multi-Sensory Tours at the AGO. Retrieved Dec 16, 2014, from The Ontario Historical Society:
  • UNESCO. (2014). World Heritage. Retrieved Dec 15, 2014, from UNESCO World Heritage Convention:

  • [i] (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012)
  • [ii] (Darcy and Dickson, 2009)
  • [iii]  United Nations. (2006, December 13 ). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • [iv] UNESCO. (2014). World Heritage.
  • [v] (Harmon, 2007)
  • [vi] The Ontario Historical Society. (2014). Part 4 | Expand your Horizons: Multi-Sensory Tours at the AGO.
  • [vii] The Ontario Historical Society. (2014). Accessible-Heritage.
  • [viii] (Darcy and Dickson, 2009)
  • [ix] United Nations General Assembly. (2006, December 13). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol. New York: United Nations.
  • [x] Landorf, Chris (2011)