Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Disabled get handle on doors

Vancouver goes for levers, not knobs; other jurisdictions may follow

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Manitoban Lois Strong, who has muscular dystrophy and arthritis, hopes the province follows Vancouver's lead and requires new buildings to have door levers, not doorknobs, which she has trouble using.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoban Lois Strong, who has muscular dystrophy and arthritis, hopes the province follows Vancouver's lead and requires new buildings to have door levers, not doorknobs, which she has trouble using. Photo Store

The doorknob is one more complication Lois Strong doesn't need in her life.

In fact, she hopes Manitoba will ban doorknobs in new buildings as the City of Vancouver is doing.

"Get rid of the doorknobs," Strong said. "It's just a frustration waiting to happen."

Strong has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that weakens her muscles. The retired nurse is also living with arthritis. Using the humble doorknob is a challenge to her and thousands of others.

Vancouver has taken steps to accommodate people with disabilities by writing doorknobs out of the local building code. Beginning in March 2014, all new Vancouver townhouses and privately owned single-family dwellings will be outfitted with door levers, not doorknobs.

The change was prompted by Vancouver's desire to become a front-runner in accessibility and incorporate universal design into new development. The theory of universal design covers a lot of ground but is anchored in the idea that environments should be accessible to everyone.

Vancouver is known as an industry leader when it comes to innovations in building standards, and the National Building Code of Canada will often adopt the codes Vancouver first introduces.

Shauna Mallory-Hill of the faculty of architecture at the University of Manitoba specializes in universal design and agrees door levers, rather than doorknobs, are the way forward.

"When you look at the two side by side, you can see which is better," Mallory-Hill said. "We want to have environments that are usable to all people, because that's equitable and democratic."

The main source of discomfort when using a doorknob is the tight grip in combination with the twist of the wrist. But a door lever is designed to be operated with just a single closed fist.

"A lever is very intuitive. It's very equitable," Mallory-Hill said. "People from young to elderly can use it."

Strong agrees the lever is easier to grab because of the clutch motion required to use it.

"Grasping the doorknob is a much harder position for arthritic fingers," Strong said.

There are downsides to the door lever. Esthetically speaking, they're a change from the tried and true knob, and a jacket or bag can get caught in the lever. Furthermore, the lever isn't child-proof because only a weak effort is required to activate it.

It's been noted elsewhere that even wild bears can operate door levers and officials recommend homeowners use exterior doorknobs to keep out bears.

But it's likely other juridisctions will eventually follow Vancouver's lead and bid goodbye to the knob, particularly as Canada's population ages.

The 2011 census revealed nearly five million Canadians are over 65 -- a record-high 14.8 per cent of the population. With age can come arthritis and other joint diseases that make it difficult to turn a knob.

Carol Hiscock, executive director of the Arthritis Society Manitoba/Nunavut Division, said more than 250,000 Manitobans have arthritis, including infants.

"Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in our province," Hiscock said. "We hope that municipalities, builders and other stakeholders across the country continue to take positive steps in addressing accessibility as a key part of their planning and design processes."

Mallory-Hill said the current national building code requires lever-type handles in buildings "where persons with disabilities are expected to be." Provincial amendments to the code exempt industrial and service spaces such as telephone-exchange buildings and elevator-machine rooms.

Private dwellings are exempt from the code unless they are designated to be accessible by persons with disabilities.

In a release, a spokesman from the provincial government said: "We are aware of the recent changes in Vancouver and presently have a subcommittee under the direction of the building standards committee looking at universal design and accessibility.

"We will be watching closely to see how this new legislation is implemented in Vancouver."

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 A15

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