Community Collaborations to Create Accessible Neighbourhoods

By Farinaz Rikhtehgaran, Aislynn Sharrock, and Atiya Mahmood

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There are barriers created by urban built environments for people living with disabilities that influence outdoor mobility and social participation (Mahmood et al., 2019; Labbé et al., 2020) The Towards Barrier-Free Communities: A Partnership to Improve Mobility, Access, and Participation (MAP) Among People with Disabilities1, is a collaborative research project between UBC, SFU, and the ULaval that supports community organizations and municipalities to develop, evaluate, and implement evidence-based interventions to contribute to the development of barrier-free communities. The MAP project adopts a community-engaged approach, ensuring that the communities affected by these barriers are involved throughout the research process. The project ensures this by continually engaging with people with lived experiences (PWLE), municipalities, and stakeholders. A subproject surmised under the broader MAP partnership is the Stakeholder Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN) project. The SWAN project is led by Dr. Atiya Mahmood at SFU and is a scaling up of the dEMAND2 project, which utilized the SWAN tool to assess the accessibility of urban environments through the perspective of people with mobility disabilities.

SWAN is a user-friendly observational tool that was originally developed by Dr. Mahmood, to capture the perspectives of older adults and people with mobility disabilities. It has five domains including functionality, safety, land use and supportive features, appearance and maintenance, and social aspects that each explore different dimensions of local neighbourhoods. With the aid of this tool, our team is currently collecting data with three populations – persons living with dementia, who are D/deaf or Hard of Hearing, and mobility device users in each of our six partner municipalities in Metro Vancouver.

Adopting a community-engaged approach, the SWAN project involves PWLE as co-researchers in designing, implementing, and evaluating the data collection tools and process. For example, during the tool adaptation process, PWLE guided what items would be included in the adapted SWAN tools, developed the data collection procedures, and supported the selection of the data collection sites. More specifically, the SWAN research team engaged stakeholders in the process of identifying locations for data collection through a collaborative forum that required several months of planning and preparation. Steps taken in preparation included the team pre-identifying problematic intersections in each municipality by overlaying GIS3 data layers (e.g., collision, urban centres, transportation hubs), conducting site observations, and consulting the municipalities about the sites.

Once all the preparation concluded, the research team hosted the hybrid forum in March 2022 to gain in-depth information about our selected sites. In total, 40 attendees including field experts, PWLE, and municipal representatives attended the event and engaged in a dynamic discussion in both smaller interactive rooms, and a larger group discussion. Discussions were supported by Google Jamboards that displayed bird’s-eye photos of each site, targeted questions and prompts, and space for attendee’s feedback. Each discussion was facilitated by a trained research team member and captured by notetakers who displayed summaries of the discussions on the Jamboards in real time.

Besides helping the research team to finalize the selected data collection sites, the forum provided detailed and nuanced information about the sites themselves. It was revealed that concerns at these sites crosscut through the municipalities; major concerns included insufficient crossing times at crosswalks and poorly demarcated road spaces for vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. Concerns also emerged related to specific disability groups – for instance, for people with hearing disabilities it was revealed that there was insufficient auditory cues available to help them safely navigate busy intersections, alongside poor directional information for those with cognitive, mobility, and sensory disabilities.

Beyond discussing what was working and not working at sites, the discussions also centred on the feasibility of improving the accessibility of these areas and challenges that might be encountered when doing so. When planning and proposing changes, municipalities must consider balancing the needs of vehicle users and pedestrians, ways to work with private owners and developers, and the impact on neighbouring businesses in combination with their annual budgets and internal capacity.

This participatory forum helped our team to connect with the community and engage many stakeholders in finalizing areas for data collection. Following the event, we shared a summary with all attendees, including a short survey for feedback and their choices for future project involvement. Presently, the team is wrapping up data collection and starting preliminary data analysis with the hopes of expanding the research work to adapt a new SWAN tool to capture the experiences of those who are partially sighted or blind. The team continues to work closely with municipalities in Metro Vancouver and contribute to the development of more accessible and barrier-free communities.

1 Project is funded for seven-years by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
2 “Enabling Mobility and Participation Among Those with Disability (dEMAND)” was a research project between SFU and UBC that used a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach. This project aimed to understand the experiences of mobility devices users as they move about in their community as well as the barriers and facilitators that they encounter in their daily life (August 2017 GRC News)
3 Geographic Information System

To learn more about the project, contact us at:

Contact Information:
Project Lead: Atiya Mahmood (
@InclusiveSWAN @InclusiveMAP

Attendees of the SWAN hybrid forum
List of identified data collection sites in Burnaby

Co-Creation of Knowledge and Raising Awareness on Disability Through Social Media

By Chikkako Famadico, Holly Lemme, Thomas Jenkins, and Atiya Mahmood

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Over 6.2 million Canadians over age 15 are living with one or more disability (e.g. physical, cognitive, sensory), including 1.5 million individuals who require mobility assistive devices for mobility and social participation in their communities (Statistics Canada, 2012; 2017). Canadians aged 65 years and older comprise the largest portion (approximately 38%) of Canadians living with at least one disability, and 24% of all Canadians using mobility assistive devices (Statistics Canada 2017). The prevalence, comorbidity, and severity of disability increases with age, with one in three older adults experiencing progressive disabilities; older adults may also experience cognitive and/or sensory disabilities along with mobility disabilities (Morris, 2019).

The “Towards Barrier-Free Communities: A Partnership for Improving Mobility, Access and Participation Among People with Disabilities (MAP)” project is a seven-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project that works with community (e.g., people with lived experience) and civic partners (e.g., City of New Westminster) in developing, implementing, and assessing innovative interventions to improve the mobility and participation of people with disabilities. The goal of the SFU MAP project is to identify barriers in the built and social environments that inhibit equitable access to participation and mobility for older adults and people living with physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities.

Two key research activities that are underway for the SFU MAP project include:
(1) the redevelopment of the Stakeholders Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN) tool for people who are blind or partially sighted, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and for people with early stages of dementia; and
(2) creation and implementation of an effective social media communications plan to engage with the public, partners, and stakeholders.


The first priority of the SFU MAP project is the SWAN tool redevelopment. The SWAN tool is a user-led, environmental audit tool that allows individuals using mobility assistive devices to assess their surrounding urban environment for barriers to mobility and social participation. Completed audits using the SWAN tool can inform city designers and policymakers to improve accessibility and inclusivity of public spaces. Citizens, rather than researchers, use the tool to assess five main categories of their neighborhood: functionality, safety, appearance and maintenance, land use and support features, and social aspects.

The SFU MAP team is focusing on redeveloping the SWAN tool, adapting it for people living with dementia or sensory disabilities (e.g., low vision and hard of hearing). The new tools are being developed by way of a scoping review, input from persons with lived experience of sensory or cognitive disability, and combined with a literature search of existing population specific user-led environmental audit tools. Literature searches reveal a gap in relation to both population specific information (e.g., the experiences of hard-of-hearing individuals in urban environments) and user-led environmental audit tools. This highlights the need for the redeveloped versions of the SWAN tool, which will help us gain insight into the neighbourhood barriers and facilitators to out-of-home mobility and participation for people with cognitive and sensory disabilities.

Previous iterations of the SWAN tool used a pen-and-paper format, and the MAP research team is working with Jose Arias-Bustamante, from UBC, to develop a web-based desktop and mobile versions of the existing and new SWAN tool using Qualtrics for data collection.


One of the critical parts of the SFU MAP knowledge mobilization (KM) strategy is to use social media communications to engage with primary stakeholders, the greater SFU academic network, the public, and community and municipal partners.

Social media platforms, or social networking services (SNS), are powerful tools that can instantly disseminate information and knowledge to a wide audience. There are three key behaviours unique to social media (knowledge seeking, knowledge-contributing, and social interactivity) that
allow the mobilization of knowledge to be readily available and easily accessible to the general public. (Ahmed et al., 2019). SNS communications are essential to the SFU MAP communications plan as they are invaluable tools to instantly connect and update stakeholders, partners, and the public about current project activities.

The SFU MAP communications plan will be targeting the following platforms to provide key research updates, raise awareness, and disseminate disability-related information and literature:(1) Facebook, (2) Instagram, (3) Twitter, and (4) LinkedIn. Each platform will be used to target different demographics based on current platform usage trends; Facebook will target a middle and older adult demographic, while Instagram will target a younger adult and adolescent demographic (Gambo & Özad, 2020). Further, Twitter and LinkedIn which are popular sites for professional advancement, networking, and self-presentation (Kim & Cha, 2017) will be used to target research professionals and academics.

Facebook and Instagram are the main platforms of focus for social interactivity with the public as they have the greatest networks and most active public users to date amongst the four SNS (Gambo & Özad, 2020). These two SNS are highly integrated and contain features that foster rich engagement, such as stories, highlights, and accessible external linking
(Ahmed et al., 2019; Thomas et al., 2020), which the communications team plans to capitalize on by posting on key disability-related dates and through sharing community engagement posts (e.g., trivia days to dispel disability-related misinformation and myths).

All SFU MAP public communications are following the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure all social media communications are designed and disseminated with inclusivity and accessibility in mind. This includes specific SNS guidelines on descriptive image captions (i.e., best fonts and phrasing for low-vision readers), live video captions for
those hard of hearing, and inclusive visual design (i.e., colour contrasts of at least 4.5:1). MAP project stakeholders and community partners include people with lived experience of sensory disability, therefore, it is imperative that all SNS efforts strictly adhere to these guidelines to minimize community barriers and to ensure that all members of our SNS networks stay informed and have access to updated project information.

Atiya Mahmood, Eireann O’Dea, Catherine Bigonnesse, Delphine Labbe, Tanveer Mahal, Muhammad Qureshi & W. Ben Mortenson (2020) Stakeholders Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN): user-led audit and photographic documentation in Canada, Disability & Society, 35:6, 902-925, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2019.1649127

Morris, Stuart P. and Statistics Canada. The Dynamics of Disability: Progressive, Recurrent or Fluctuating Limitations. Open WorldCat,

Sarah Gambo, Bahire Ofe Özad, The demographics of computer-mediated communication: A review of social media demographic trends among social networking site giants, Computers in Human Behavior Reports, Volume 2, 2020, 100016, ISSN 2451-9588. DOI:

Statistics Canada (2012). Table 13-10-0345-01 Adults with disabilities DOI:

Statistics Canada (2017). Canadian Survey on Disability.

Thomas, V. L., Chavez, M., Browne, E. N., & Minnis, A. M. (2020). Instagram as a tool for study engagement and community building among adolescents: A social media pilot study. Digital health, 6, 2055207620904548.

Yunis Ali Ahmed, Mohammad Nazir Ahmad, Norasnita Ahmad, Nor Hidayati Zakaria, Social media for knowledge sharing: A systematic literature review, Telematics and Informatics, Volume 37, 2019, Pages 72-112, ISSN 0736-5853, DOI:

Interactive Stakeholders Forum

June 13th, 2022
Aislynn Sharrock, Farinaz Riktehgaran, and Diana Juanita Mora

The aim of the Stakeholder’s Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN) project, a sub-project of the Mobility Access Participation (MAP) Project, is to connect with community members in order to assess the accessibility of streets through the lens of people living with different disabilities (e.g., sensory, cognitive). Using a community-engaged approach, defined as “a set of practices, values and objectives that emphasize active participation of the individuals and communities directly affected by research activities,” our team works to connect, collaborate, and build trust with members of the community through our various research activities. In line with this approach, our team came together to plan and host an interactive hybrid forum to co-identify areas for data collection with our community partners and stakeholders, as well as plan for their engagement in the next phases of our project.  Through this, we provided the opportunity for the community stakeholders to be more involved in the design and structure of our research project. Applying a community-engaged approach allows us to raise the voice of people with disabilities and build more accessible and responsive urban spaces. 

To make this event a success, planning and preparation started several months in advance! Bringing this event together involved the efforts of all team members and required input from several stakeholders such as our municipal partners. For example, our preparation efforts included a review of relevant accessibility and urban municipal policies, selecting potential areas for data collection using open-source data (e.g., pedestrian crashes, land use, transportation hubs) and producing and overlaying GIS data layers, conducting site visits to all our potential data collection sites, and lastly reviewing our plans with our municipal partners to incorporate their expert feedback. 

The event occurred on March 4th, 2022 which kicked off with a presentation by the former municipal partner from the City of Burnaby, Rebecca Mahaffey, and a community partner from Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, Janette McIntosh, who spoke to the past success brought by using the SWAN tool in the community. This allowed us to highlight the improvement seen in the community’s urban environment brought by the application of the SWAN tool. It also gave our attendees an overview of the partnership with the Gerontology Department. With a total of 40 attendees, our team members facilitated six hybrid breakout rooms/forums which focused on prioritizing areas for data collection by exploring the knowledge, opinions, and experiences of all attendees regarding the pre-identified intersections. This portion of the event adopted an interactive component which used visuals including recent photos of the intersections and Google Jamboards. The sessions revealed rich information about the challenges that people encounter in these areas and helped our team narrow down what intersections were feasible areas for data collection. We wrapped things up by asking about the barriers our municipal partners might face when trying to improve the accessibility of these areas, and how our attendees would like to be involved in the SWAN project moving forward. 

The results of our discussions in the breakout rooms showed that intersections prioritized throughout the Lower Mainland shared many concerns. For example, our stakeholders spoke of the insufficient crossing time present for pedestrians of all ages and abilities to cross safely at major crosswalks. Moreover, of the ambiguity between road space for vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians, with a lack of distinct features to separate the shared road space. Additionally, a lack of necessary directional information needed for pedestrians with sensory disabilities. Lastly, the influences of a high density of traffic, pedestrian populations, and construction in creating high levels of noise, increase the difficulty of hearing auditory cues. These points were just a few that were highlighted by our stakeholders as having the most influence on the experience of people living with disabilities in accessing their communities.  

Subsequently, several challenges that come with improving the accessibility of these areas were discussed. Some of the main challenges include balancing the needs of vehicle users and of pedestrians. To make considerable accessibility changes to our intersections that promote walkability and wheelabity, there must be considerations for impacts on traffic flow, as well as driver mentality education, such as slowing down, giving the right-of-way, and being patient with pedestrians. Additionally, trying to find creative ways to work with developers and private property owners to have a consistent approach to making sidewalks and crossings safer and more accessible. Other considerations such as understanding how these changes may impact neighbouring businesses, working within annual City budgets, and logistical barriers to implementing changes all prove to be challenges when it comes to improving the accessibility of these areas.

Following the event, our team compiled what was learnt and sent out a summary of the event to all the attendees, including a short survey for feedback and future involvement in the project.  The “Stakeholder’s Engagement” event allowed us to strengthen connections with our partners as well as co-identify areas for data collection. Through this short survey, we have been able to get a closer look at what our attendees would like to be involved in the future. The responses showed that many of our stakeholders would like to get involved in ‘implementing interventions projects and programs’, and ‘participating in municipality focused groups’. With our continued strive to keep the community engaged, these responses to our event will allow us to better direct future conversations with our partners to build the necessary relationships. Following this event, our team came together and finalized the tool and training sessions for data collection. We have started the process of participant recruitment and data collection since mid-May. The SWAN research team intends to host more knowledge mobilization events in the future to raise awareness, disseminate the research findings, and actively involve the community in research on the accessibility of urban public spaces for people living with disabilities.  

Inclusive MAP Podcast

The MAP (Mobility, Access, and Participation) partnership welcomes you to Inclusive MAP, a podcast about its areas of interest, projects, goals, and the communities it collaborates with. Here you can find episodes exploring topics related to the MAP project team—the researchers, municipal and community partners, and community members—and our areas of focus—social accessibility, transportation, and navigation—available in English and French. Hosted by students and alumni Research Assistants from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and Université Laval, Inclusive MAP invites you on a deep dive to get an up-close-and-personal look into the labs, our communities, what we’ve learned, and the personalities behind the research.  

Podcast coming soon!