Heritage buildings still not wheelchair accessible

Heritage buildings are a great place to visit. Unless you’re in a wheelchair.

In the Halifax area there are 460 registered heritage buildings but many of their doorways are out of bounds for people in wheelchairs.

by Katrina Pyne

Western Union's historic storefront is inaccessible (Katrina Pyne photo).

Under the Heritage Property Act, registered buildings are protected from demolition. Registered heritage buildings must preserve the exterior appearance of the building.

Joanna Pearce is the author of the disabledfeminists blog and an activist for accessibility issues in Halifax. Her husband is in a wheelchair.

“The majority of older buildings in Halifax are simply not accessible,” says Pearce. “It’s like the city uses the heritage plaques as an excuse to leave them as they are because changes are too costly, and to us, that’s inaccessible.”

Henry Roper, president of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, said he cannot imagine a situation today where a building would lose its historic designation because of necessary changes made to accommodate disabled people.

Many heritage buildings don't have ramps. (Katrina Pyne photo).

“Several heritage buildings, like Province House, have been modified for one reason or another, including the provision of access for disabled persons,” said Roper. “Any legislation governing the designation of historic sites should be required to allow modifications to facilitate accessibility for the disabled, in order to conform with Human Rights legislation and the Charter of Rights and Freedom.”

Bill Plaskett is the heritage planner for the Halifax Regional Municipality. He has been a major consultant for the design of the Barrington Street Heritage District.

“Many buildings are in continued use or have stayed under the same ownership for many years,” said Plaskett. The building code kicks in when the use of the building is changed or when there is a new owner. Then it becomes a regulatory requirement to fit the code.

John Crace, the chairman of WHW Architects said, “When buildings are built to the (building) code there should really be no barriers for anybody to get in and out of those buildings.”

Yet many public buildings in Halifax have been untouched for years.

“Older buildings weren’t designed for wheelchair accessibility,” said Plaskett. “The challenge is the compatibility of exterior alterations with heritage buildings.”

For example, the section on doorways and doors in the Nova Scotia Building Code Act requires that doorways are wide enough to allow wheelchairs to pass.

But if a building is registered as a heritage property, the HRM then has a degree of control over the extent of the alterations. Plaskett said they can refuse alterations if they deem them excessive or if they would deface the front of the building. “The municipality does have the authority to say no to renovations,” said Plaskett.

Mary MacDonald has been living in Halifax since the 1990s. She has been in a wheelchair for the past 10 years.

“There’s a huge gap between just meeting the building code requirements and being fully accessible,” said MacDonald. “You can’t really understand that gap unless you’re the one in the wheelchair.”