Spotlight on Accessibility
The public gets an inside look at the Rehabilitation Living Lab at Alexis Nihon
Isabelle Ducharme was a patron of Alexis Nihon before a car crash left her quadriplegic in 1988. And she continued to shop at the mall after the life-altering accident, in her motorized wheelchair, despite considerable challenges. “The quality of the facility and accessibility eroded over time,” she says. “It was even difficult to enter the building because it didn’t have automatic doors and inside it was growing darker.”
However, a partnership with the Center for interdisciplinary research in rehabilitation of Greater Montreal (CRIR) and a two-year renovation project led to significant positive changes. (See: Alexis Nihon: beyond a simple facelift and Breaking down barriers)
As the president of Kéroul – a tourism and cultural development organization for people with limited physical capacity – Ducharme did not only witness the transformation. “Shopping centres are part of the tourism product and services chain,” she explains. Kéroul and other stakeholder organizations were therefore consulted “at every research phase, from determining what should be taken into consideration to make Alexis Nihon more accessible to evaluating the impact of the resulting measures.”
Scientific Day and Open House
On November 3rd, the public was invited to visit Alexis Nihon and discover how far the modernization efforts and transformations promoting participation for all had gone, while also finding out more about the dozens of research projects undertaken as part of the Living Lab program (RehabMaLL).
Close to a dozen information booths were set up throughout the mall, including that of Florian Grond who designed an audio beacon to guide the blind or visually impaired for his postdoc at Concordia, under the supervision of CRIR researcher Aaron Johnson. “I know that there are audio beacons out there,” said Grond. “But my mission was to make it open source so that everyone can assemble it and also to have a design research platform.”
The small loudspeaker, which operates thanks to a credit card-sized computer and a Wi-Fi dongle, plays a custom signal when activated remotely using a smartphone. A person with little to no sight can use the device to find a point of interest in a public place such as a hair salon in a shopping centre. Grond tried out the beacon at the MAB-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre, but he plans to test it further to better understand how the blind and visually impaired experience the world around them. He also wants to look into whether it makes sense to introduce more auditory distractions in already noisy environments.
Occupational therapist and graduate student Camille Gauthier-Boudreault is working with Sherbrooke University classmate Laure-Hélène Gagné-Deland to consider a completely different issue. Under the supervision of CRIR researcher France Beauregard, they surveyed families of children with autism spectrum disorder, as well as children with either a physical or intellectual disability to find out if they frequent public places or prefer to avoid them.
Approximately 65% of parents who participated in the study indicated that they do go out with their children in public places, “but only for everyday needs, not leisure” said Gagné-Deland and reported that “such outings are stressful events that are not very enjoyable” for them.
The students took part in the Scientific and Open House Day to share their preliminary findings, but they left with something in exchange: recommendations for future investigation. The clinicians and people with functional limitations who stopped by their booth suggested that they go straight to the source for first-hand perspective. “It may be difficult to speak with younger children, but adolescents could certainly contribute to advancing our knowledge of the barriers they encounter so that we may better understand what they experience,” said Gauthier-Boudreault.
“A long way to go”
At Université de Montréal’s School of Optometry, researchers are trying to find answers to a number of questions in another area. Can background noise in a store impact the buying decisions of elderly consumers with and without visual or auditory impairments, for instance? Can the visually impaired use a tablet to enlarge text on product and price labels instead of the more expensive and stigmatizing spot readers?
Jonathan Jarry spoke at length and with ease of the projects currently under way, but he mostly just tried to raise awareness about disability. “It’s so important,” he said. “I think we don’t realize when we are healthy how many people around us face daily challenges we just don’t have.”
To highlight his point, Jarry recounted the reaction of a passerby he informed of the changes made at Alexis Nihon to improve accessibility.
“She looked around and said ‘well, there’s an elevator, it seems accessible.’ There is still a long way to go to make people aware because often, if a person isn’t in a wheelchair, we simply don’t see the disability.”
Although the renovations are now done, Alexis Nihon remains a testing ground for CRIR researchers who are coming up with new ideas and technologies that, they hope, will lead to better social inclusion and participation of people with disabilities.