beyond a simple facelift
The creation of the first Rehabilitation Living Lab in the Mall, or RehabMALL, in North America.
By Caroline Arbour
You have no doubt noticed that, after two years of renovations, Alexis Nihon Plaza is now sporting a much-needed new look.
Minor work was done to the 1967 building some twenty years ago, but by and large, the shopping centre remained unchanged since the 1980s. By the beginning of this decade, both the interior and exterior were showing their age. The wheels were set in motion for a major revamp, not only to improve the aesthetics – and therefore, the shopping experience – but also to make the mall more functional.
The company that owns Alexis Nihon, Cominar REIT, planned to begin renovations two years ago. But at about the same time, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal (CRIR) came knocking on their door with a proposal. The research centre’s mission is to facilitate research aimed at helping people living with a physical impairment affecting their mobility, sight, hearing or speech to become more autonomous and to facilitate their social integration by way of research.
Making malls accessible is important because they not only offer products and services that meet a person’s basic needs, they are places to socialize and be entertained.
The CRIR intended to study the factors that promote or hinder the inclusion of disabled persons and to test new technologies in a specific environment: the shopping centre. Alexis Nihon seemed like a perfect location to carry out this exercise since it was not universally accessible at the time. Talks led to a fruitful partnership with the creation of the first Rehabilitation Living Lab in the Mall, or RehabMALL, in North America.
In 2011, one third of Quebecers aged 15 years and older had a disability restricting their everyday activities or interfering with their ability to participate in their community. When seniors are included, the proportion of those who have difficulty with everyday tasks like shopping rises to 48%.
Making malls accessible is important because they not only offer products and services that meet a person’s basic needs, but they are places to socialize and to be entertained. Changing the physical environment by adding ramps and elevators is only one aspect of improving accessibility. Equally necessary is raising public awareness about disability so that there will be a move toward greater social inclusion.
By participating in the CRIR’s living lab, Alexis Nihon committed to becoming more accessible. In an effort to do things right from the very start, the shopping centre opened its doors to researchers before launching the renovations. In the company of persons with motor, sensory and cognitive handicaps, teams of experts analyzed the environment in great detail. They also sought the input of rehabilitation practitioners and mall business owners. Conclusion? There was work to be done.
Shoppers in wheelchairs had to make a 40-minute detour to reach an accessible entrance because there were too few ramps. Alexis Nihon only had one service elevator, which was hard to access and next to impossible to find. Shiny floors created lighting contrasts that were challenging for people with impaired vision. In addition, interior information signs hung too high, were insufficiently lit and the lettering was too small.
Changing the physical environment by adding ramps and elevators is only one aspect of improving accessibility. Equally necessary is raising public awareness about disability so that there will be a move toward greater social inclusion.
A transformation that benefits everyone
Researchers shared their findings with the renovation supervisors who, along with CRIR researcher and interior designer Dr Tiiu Poldma, came up with practical and feasible retrofits.
Today, Alexis Nihon has two new wheelchair access ramps at the Sainte-Catherine Street and Atwater metro entrances. A panoramic elevator large enough to fit three wheelchairs is centrally located at the western end of the atrium. Washrooms at street level include adapted facilities. Floor tiles feature an antireflective coating and finally, the information booth now sits on the edge of the atrium at street level, where it is visible from everywhere in the shopping mall.
These improvements have had notable repercussions. According to preliminary observations, the number of visitors to Alexis Nihon who use mobility aids has risen since the renovations. But they are not the only ones to enjoy the changes made. Seniors, parents with strollers, and shop owners who need to move merchandise are now taking the ramps and the elevator.
If any lesson is to be drawn from the Living Lab experiment, it is that combined efforts can make a significant difference in the quality of life of disabled citizens while at the same time benefitting the entire community.
An “open house” to celebrate and showcase the achievements of the Living Lab will take place on November 3rd at Alexis Nihon. The public is invited to come discover the full scope of the Living Lab project that extends beyond the renovations. Find out more in next week’s edition of Westmount Magazine.