Dryden woman fights for daughter's mobility

A 19-year-old woman in Dryden thought a new wheelchair porch lift would give her life back. Instead, Rachel Ouwehand said it has made the last six months miserable.

A malfunctioning wheelchair lift has trapped a 19-year-old in her home for much of the winter

Thunder Bay residents Lynne and Rachel Ouwehand have been fighting to find a permanent fix to a porch lift that has frequently broken down since it was first installed. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

A 19-year-old woman in Dryden thought a new wheelchair porch lift would give her life back.  

Instead, Rachel Ouwehand said it's made the last six months miserable. 

A muscular disease called myotonic dystrophy robbed the teen of her ability to walk about two years ago. 

Rachel refused to let that stop her from living a full life.

Lynne and Rachel Ouwehand say this porch lift has broken down more than 40 times since it was installed. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

"I thought about it this way," she said. "Yes it sucks and yes I wish it didn't happen ... But I'm not going to let it change me as a person and my goals in life that I want to achieve."

"Chance at freedom"

One of the first adjustments Rachel and her mother Lynne Ouwehand had to undertake was to make their split-level home accessible.     

The main floor is on the second level of the house and the inside staircase is too narrow to bring Rachel's motorized wheelchair up. 

Her occupational therapist suggested a porch lift — an outdoor elevator that can take Rachel in her wheelchair up to the deck so that she can enter the house through the kitchen door.

"I looked at that porch lift as a chance at freedom," she said. "I just expected it to make things a lot easier. But it's just made things a lot harder."

Lynne Ouwehand told CBC News the lift started breaking down soon after a technician from Shoppers Home Health installed it last September. 

The local store repeatedly sent workers to repair it, but there was often a wait, leaving Rachel stranded.   

Lynne said each time it was fixed, the lift would get stuck again within days. 

"It has happened more than 40 times, where I've had to call the school and say Rachel can't be in attendance because we can't get her out of the house," she said.

"I've had to cancel medical appointments, some of which we've waited months to have with specialists, because she couldn't leave the house."

Scared of getting stuck

The Ouwehands said they are also worried about safety, both because the lift frequently shakes and because they don't know when it's going to suddenly break down. 

"I am actually scared a lot of the time in the winter," said Rachel. "God forbid I get stuck halfway up. Then I (would be in)  mid-air." 

Rachel said missing school and outings with friends has taken an emotional toll. 

"In a way, it makes you feel more disabled," she said. "It just makes you feel ... that's just one more thing I can't do."

For the last six months, Lynne said, both Shoppers Home Health Care and the manufacturer, Bruno Independent Living Aids in Wisconsin, have told her the problems are with her deck or the concrete slab below, rather than with the lift itself. 

But she insists it was never installed properly in the first place and has been calling and emailing the companies asking for a permanent fix. 

Contacted CBC out of desperation

Desperate for action, Lynne contacted CBC News. 

CBC called Shoppers Home Health, Bruno Independent Living Aids and March of Dimes, the funding agency that paid for the porch lift.

Last week, Shoppers sent a crew to the Ouwehand's home with replacement parts for the lift. 

Lynne said the ongoing ordeal highlights the broader issue of accessibility for people with disabilities.  

"It really comes down to ... respect and equality for everyone," she said.

"It's not just that (Rachel) wants to enter the world. I'd like to think that my daughter is such an amazing person that the world needs her."

Shoppers' response

A spokesperson for Shoppers Home Health Care gave the following email statement to CBC earlier this week:

The Shoppers Home Health Care team has gone to great lengths to address the customers concerns regarding the porch lift. The customer has been in direct contact, and the store has responded promptly to each call and has made an effort to resolve her concerns. Due to circumstances beyond their control, some repairs required were delayed, i.e. due to weather conditions.

We are sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused. We have been in direct contact with the customer and have agreed to install a chair lift at no additional fee in the interim.  She has agreed to this offer and our technicians will begin installation next week.

Our team will revisit this issue in the spring to ensure her deck is compatible with the porch lift.