Adapting design to ease living
Businesses now more willing to pay price of meeting special needs, company says
Judy Steed



CAN DO?: Jeff Baum, head of a firm that designs for special needs, thinks theatres like the Eglinton, above, can be made more accessible for the disabled without unreasonable expense. Left, a simple ramp on Yonge St.
Jeff Baum, founder and president of Adapt-Able Design Group, was reluctant to have his photograph taken at the Eglinton Theatre, soon to be closed by Famous Players after a battle about accessibility.

"This situation does a huge disservice to the disabled community," Baum asserts, standing in front of the famous art deco landmark, built in 1936 on Eglinton Ave. W. in midtown Toronto. "Famous Players says it's closing the Eglinton because of the cost of making it accessible - but it's really just scapegoating disabled people."

We peer through the theatre's glass doors into the lobby.

Baum points to two sets of stairs. "That's the problem, right there."

Although he's not willing to estimate the cost of making the theatre accessible, he says that based on past experience, there are potentially appropriate solutions that are not prohibitively expensive. The price of commercial lifts starts at about $18,000.

The cost of retrofitting buildings to make them universally accessible is a price businesses are increasingly willing to pay, Baum says - especially when they take into account the benefits to customers. "As baby boomers age, it makes good business sense to accommodate their needs."

For this 40-year-old entrepreneur, it's all about demographics, which he studied at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he earned a business degree in 1984. Growing up in Toronto, Baum had spent summers working in the family business, Armstrong Baum Plumbing & Heating. Geared to construction and design issues, he was determined to strike out on his own.

He began by importing European bathroom and kitchen products, which turned out to be so much better-designed than their North American counterparts that they were easier to use for seniors and disabled people.

That led Baum into a growing market that no one else seemed to be serving. With a keen eye to trends, he set up Adapt-Able Design in 1987 as a one-stop-shop for people who need special assistance getting through their daily lives, at home or at work.

It's a field that has been transformed in the last decade as advances in computer technology and environmental controls have enabled people in wheelchairs to gain greater independence, to open their own doors and turn on lights, TV and stereo with remote controls in arm or head rests.

Baum describes a typical case, pointing out that none of us knows when a calamity might strike: Joe Jones (not his real name) is badly hurt in a car accident. He suffers severe head trauma and spinal cord injury; he will likely never walk again. His home is not accessible for a wheelchair. He, his wife and children are all traumatized.

Baum's firm visits the disabled person in the hospital, talks to his family and sorts out the situation.

The Adapt-Able Design team -- which includes an architect, social worker, occupational therapist, kinesiologist and architectural technicians -- brings hope. They organize the transition, helping disabled people adapt to a different life, reintegrating into their home and workplace.

It starts with assessing the physical layout of the home and helping their client modify it or, if necessary, find a new apartment or house. Baum's firm assists with the real estate transaction, designs layouts and options for living arrangements that are tailored to the individual's needs, co-ordinates construction -- and makes sure the outcome works as planned.

The barriers to accessibility, he notes, can be minor -- a few steps here and there, a raised ridge or curb to a shower stall -- and the solutions relatively simple. However some homes require extensive alterations, such as lifting devices or additions.

Doorways are widened. Floor surfaces are flattened, with hardwood or low-pile carpeting. Refrigerators with external ice and water dispensers are useful. Accessible appliances also include wall ovens and cooktops built into low cabinets. Stoves can be outfitted with automatic on-and-off controls --- very handy for people with Alzheimer's disease or brain injury -- connected to a monitoring station.

Ceiling track lifts assist people out of bed and into their wheelchair or into the bathtub.

Then there are the sophisticated technological devices -- the voice-activated systems -- that allow people who can't use their hands to do all sorts of tasks, from retrieving phone messages to turning on computers.

Intercom systems are useful for people who can't get out of bed on their own. If the attendant arrives at the house and has forgotten the key, the disabled person can use the intercom to check who's there. "They can have a small switch clipped to their pillow that they can press to unlock the door," explains David Wallace, vice-president of Adapt-Able Design.


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`As baby boomers age, it makes good business sense to accommodate their needs.'

Jeff Baum, founder-president, Adapt-Able Design Group

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In Baum's experience, "most people's independence can be enhanced with the proper adaptations." This extends to the workplace, where Adapt-Able Design's assessment team moves from the parking lot to the entrance, elevators and washrooms. Older people need to park closer to buildings, on a flat grade. Automatic doors allow access to those who can't open heavier doors. Elevator control panels can be lowered and repositioned. Washroom mirrors, toilet stalls and paper towel dispensers can be adjusted.

"Very few washrooms that are supposed to be accessible are actually accessible, in our experience," says Wallace. "Often people in wheelchairs can't even get into the washroom, or the stall door swings in so the person can't close the door once they're in."

Lighting is also very important for seniors and people with low vision. Lighting can be used to highlight any hazards, and can be designed to guide people through complex environments. "Surfaces reflect light differently," Wallace explains. "Light can reflect off shiny marble floors making it almost impossible for people with low vision to see where they're supposed to go."

One of the subtle techniques in "way finding" is special tiles to mark the path through a lobby, enabling blind people to keep on track.

Listening to Baum and Wallace, it's impossible not to think that at some point in our lives, if we live long enough, and are mobile enough, we'll all need the environmental enhancements Adapt-Able Design provides.

"When we talk about accessibility," Baum clarifies, "we're thinking about people who have problems with mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive issues -- and people who are just getting old."

Right now, Baum's team is consulting to a major financial institution on "creative ways to make their workplaces accessible for employees and customers." They have just completed a study on making a major Ontario entertainment venue more accessible. And they recently altered the customer service area of a dominant Canadian merchandiser, to make it more user friendly for seniors. But their clients don't want to be named, probably because they don't want to be seen as late in fulfilling the imperative for inclusion and accessibility.

At the same time, Adapt-Able is experiencing a shift in business from mostly residential work to more and more commercial, corporate consulting.

"Which is a good thing," Baum says. "Business understands the value of making buildings universally accessible." Which makes him wonder why Famous Players would give itself a black eye, in public.

Last September, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, responding to complaints, ordered the movie chain to make the Eglinton, Backstage and Uptown theatres accessible -- and to pay damages to five complainants.

"It's not just a matter of putting in a ramp," says Joanne Fraser, vice-president of corporate affairs for Famous Players, referring to the problems at the Eglinton. "We don't own it, the lease is due to expire in a year, it needs new washrooms and ramps, and it's quite steep in the theatre."

"With all our older theatres, as leases come up, we haven't renewed because we're building new theatres. The Eglinton is over 700 seats -- and to operate a single screen in a multiplex environment is challenging."

"People in wheelchairs can get into the Eglinton now, through the back door," she adds. "They're not being treated equally, but . . ."

Gus Arrigo, whose grandfather built the Eglinton, won't comment on the theatre's future.

The Arrigo family's private firm, Manresa Investments, owns the Eglinton and rented it out to Famous Players for the last 60 years.

"All I can say is that Famous Players will no longer run it as a theatre by the end of April," Arrigo says. "It's early days in terms of discussions for the future. We're entertaining different proposals."

The Adapt-Able Design Group can be reached at 1-800-781-6434.


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Design Works explores the role of design in business every Monday in @Biz. E-mail jsteed@thestar.ca