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Meet Jody Patterson, Advocate for Accessibility in the Built Environment

Barriers to accessibility in the built environment often go unnoticed by people who don’t have to contend with them. Until they inevitably do.

This is a fact about accessibility. And it’s one that Jody Patterson faced when she became temporarily disabled.

Jody was an avid skier until age 18, when she had a major skiing accident. Her orthopedic surgeon, who was also teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, was excited by the extent of her injury because medical textbooks at the time stated that it was impossible to tear every single ligament in the knee.

“He had argued that it was possible, but had never seen it,” Jody recalled. “And then I walked into his office and asked him to take a look at my knee.” Her ligaments were fully rebuilt, but it meant Jody had to navigate the world around her in a new way that year: first from a wheelchair, then on crutches, and then with a brace and cane during the lengthy recovery process.

As luck would have it, Jody was also starting her architecture degree at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Waterloo, ON. The program is now in a new (and accessible) facility, but during Jody’s studies program spaces were on the second floor of a building with limited elevator access.

“Fellow students would hoist and carry me upstairs. It was comical,” Jody said. “I had a classmate who thought it was ridiculous that I didn’t have a way to join the others in studio, or at the pub for that matter, so he would just carry me over barriers.”

RHFAC Training presented the idea of accessibility being inherently human as it is a key step toward the creation of an inclusive and welcoming society

More adjustments had to be made: Jody’s student housing had to be changed to a different building where a first-floor dorm was available because there were no elevators to access upper floors, and she hadn’t needed an accessible room when she enrolled. It all made for what she calls a “fascinating experience” shaping her student life and the future of her architecture career.

“I wasn’t trying to become an advocate for universal access,” Jody said. “I was just trying to go to architecture school, go home to my dorm room, get around the library –all the things that I needed to do as a student. It was quite an interesting introduction to how the built world is conceived and I started thinking that universal access should not be such an afterthought: we should start thinking about the built environment in ways that doesn’t leave anybody out, designing for different needs instead of fixing spaces later to include them, often in awkward or incomplete ways.”

The Path to Equitable Architecture

Encountering these physical barriers was a lesson Jody took with her as she achieved her Bachelor’s and then Masters of Architecture, also from the University of Waterloo. She is now the program head of the Bachelor of Architectural Science degree program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).

As part of the ongoing educational journey of accessibility and inclusion, Jody took the RHFAC Training course that gave her even more insight into how people with varying abilities interact with the built environment. RHFAC Training presented the idea of accessibility being inherently human as it is a key step toward the creation of an inclusive and welcoming society, she said. This challenges the notion that it is an abstract or optional concept pushed off to the side as it affects very few (this is a myth: 1 in 5 Canadians have a disability, and that number is growing as our population ages).

“Once we realize that, as human beings, we have all these things in common and a few aspects make our experiences different, accessibility is so easy to approach,” said Jody. “This is what I took from RHFAC Training and pass along to students: once we start thinking differently about the built environment, we will make it enjoyable for so many more people. And when we include more people, places can thrive socially and economically. Helping students to care about accessibility is important because once we care about something, we are motivated to find ways to solve the problem.”

Accessibility shouldn’t be such an enigma, but good accessibility is generally unnoticed because it is good design. Think of the Vancouver International Airport which received a Gold rating from Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) and, for 12 consecutive years, was ranked the best airport in North America. BCIT Bachelor of Architectural Science students recently worked with YVR to evaluate the accessibility of temporary re-routing pathways, to improve navigability in a course taught by Colette Parras, as well as designing accessible buildings in a course taught by Jody and colleagues.

“It’s time to rethink our buildings to ensure everyone can participate and contribute to their communities,” said Jody. “Taking RHFAC Training makes sense for anyone in architecture, design, or planning. It is where this country is headed, and this course provides great insight into something that more and more organizations are looking to provide. Universal Design isn’t going away; it is growing.”

The Human Reasons Behind Access

Last spring BCIT architecture students mapped a major transit terminus in Vancouver, British Columbia – Waterfront Station – from the perspective of people with different disabilities. Some students chose the colour vision deficiency perspective; some chose navigating the busy transportation hub from a service dog perspective, while others tested what the experience would be like for those who are legally blind. The students reached out to local members of those communities to assist them in testing their work to design an accessible station map.

“The exercise was enormously empowering… It made the students really passionate about the fact that accessibility may not be that hard to achieve once it’s considered,” said Jody. “It just took thinking outside of one’s own experience, and that capacity for external consideration is a critical life skill, not just as part of being human but for anybody involved in making decisions on someone else’s behalf: architects are always making decisions on behalf of users, and we need a broader understanding of who the general public includes.”

“That is the part we can’t teach in a book or video,” added Jody. “We need real people connecting with real people, wearing the same shoes or picking up the same coffee order and then proceeding to navigate the same environment in very different ways.” Special acknowledgment to Colette Parras for her teaching Universal Design within BCIT’s Architectural Science program.

To learn more about RHFAC Training and Tuition grants available visit

Thanks to funding from the Government of British Columbia and Government of Ontario, residents of B.C. and residents of Ontario are eligible for tuition grants, along with people of disabilities located anywhere in Canada. To learn more, visit

This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Sectorial Initiatives Program. The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.