Winnipeg will soon be one of the first cities in Canada to have specialized housing designed for people who are both deaf and blind.

Bonnie Heath, executive director of the Resource Centre for Manitobans who are Deaf-Blind, has put down payments on 10 suites in the residential portion of the new Gas Station Arts Centre, which is slated for the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street.

"We're very excited," Heath said, adding that the need for this kind of housing is great.

"The deaf-blind individuals that I'm in contact with in their own homes right now feel isolated and unsafe." 

'I'm just hoping it won't take too long.' - Gayle Northcott

She added, "You have a combination of you can't see and you can't hear; you don't know who's coming into your place. You don't know, for example, one of my deaf-blind friends said she wouldn't even know the toilet was running over until the water was at her ankles in the dining room."

Heath works with dozens of Manitobans who are deaf-blind — people with a combination of no vision or low vision and hearing that rely on interpreters to communicate. 

The apartments will not only bring members of the deaf-blind community under one roof, the apartments will be designed with them and for them for safer and easier living, said Heath.

"Sharp edges, you know, things that we take for granted when we can see, getting around corners — those types of things will be avoided."

Forks architect will design tactile-focused environment

Winnipeg-based architect Steve Cohlmeyer, whose resume includes The Forks, will tackle the project, which he acknowledges will be a first for him.

"At the level of problem-solving, I think it's really exciting — and exciting because there's a whole service aspect and a kind of integration of a whole group I was unaware of when I first got the call," he said.

Cohlmeyer is considering is a tactile approach to design — for example, surfaces that will distinguish between rooms.

"For people who have no sight and zero hearing, we'll certainly want to explore the kinds of things you can help feel your way through a space," he said, adding that for people with partial sight, high-contrast spaces may be important.

Bonnie Heath and Gayle Northcott

Bonnie Heath, left, interprets for Gayle Northcott, right, in Northcott's current home in Winnipeg. (CBC)

"Exaggerated colour difference or dark and light contrast will be a helpful thing to have," he said. "So you can see where a door cabinet is against a light floor as opposed to all-white cabinets and all-white floors."

In the coming months, Cohlmeyer will visit deaf-blind clients to "watch how they live" to source his design solutions. He said he is also travelling to Toronto and the United States to visit existing deaf-blind housing to learn what works well and what doesn't.

"Even when you're well-acquainted with an environment you can still bump into things, so we want to be watching and learning as much as we can about how we facilitate movement and operation of equipment within the unit itself and how they can move again between the unit and even elevators and an outdoor terrace."

Money raised via RAW:almond

​The down payments for the suites come largely from three years' worth of donations collected by RAW:almond, Winnipeg's pop-up river restaurant.

Chef Mandel Hitzer collects donations at the restaurant each year and even slept on the ice for 21 nights to raise money for charity. 

He said the city has been so supportive of his restaurant, he wanted to give back. He chose Heath's project because it's close to his heart.

"I am the youngest of five. Two of my brothers are disabled: one of my brothers has autism and one is legally blind and going blind," he said, adding that while his brothers live in Calgary, he wanted to help here.

"I decided, you know, we're Winnipeggers. I want to help Winnipeggers."

Gayle Northcott can't thank Hitzer enough. The 72-year-old has been deaf and blind for most of her life and looks forward to the day she will be able to move into her new home.

She has already drawn up what she'd like in her suite, namely wide hallways and bright specialized lighting that will aid her low vision.

"I'm just hoping it won't take too long!" she said.

The housing project will be paid for by the clients — some units will have rental rates geared to income, affordable housing and market price suites.

Shovels could be in the ground before the end of this year, Heath said.


This story is part of Access Denied, a CBC Manitoba series exploring accessibility for people with disabilities in Winnipeg.