'If there's a fire, I'm dead': Quadruple amputee battles condo board for access to her own building

A woman who had both arms and legs amputated, can't leave or enter her condo building without help because her condo board won't install an automatic door. An advocate for the disabled says her situation is far too common, and legislation lags behind the needs of people with disabilities.

Governments need to 'get with the program,' fix building codes and laws, advocate says

Verna Marzo can't open the doors to her Calgary condo building without help from her care worker, sister, or willing neighbours. The condo board has plans for new doors, but not for a push-button system. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Verna Marzo says she'll never forget the embarrassment of being stuck outside her Calgary condo building — in the cold for almost two hours, waiting for someone to let her in — because as a quadruple amputee she can't open the doors on her own, and her condo board has refused to install automatic doors she can use.

"Someone helped me [get] out, but when I wanted to go back in, there was no one to open the door," said Marzo, 46. 

"It was cold. I called my sister but my sister was at work … so I waited until my caregiver arrived." She says none of the other doors in the building is an option.

"That means I get stuck behind the doors. If there's an emergency … if there's a fire, I'm dead, there's no way I can get outside."

According to an advocate for people with disabilities, situations like Marzo's are "all too common," because weak building codes and a lack of provincial accessibility laws are causing a "chronic and pervasive shortage" of accessible housing.

"Imagine that you're in a building where you paid good money to live … and you can't get in or out without having someone there," said David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

"Imagine you go to sleep at night knowing — God forbid — if there's a fire, you can't let yourself out. No one would want to live that way and people with disabilities shouldn't have to live that way."

Homebound and frustrated

Two years ago, after having emergency abdominal surgery, Marzo contracted sepsis — a reaction to a severe blood infection that leads to organs shutting down. Doctors amputated both legs and arms to save her life.

Earlier this year, she started shopping for a condo that would allow her to get around with her wheelchair or prosthetics. She says she knew the place she bought wasn't perfect, but it was one of the few she could afford. She hoped to deal with issues as they came up, but never expected to be fighting for a door. 

In May, a few months after she was locked outside in the cold, she asked the building manager if automatic doors could be installed.

She was told the condo board decided not at this time. Marzo's social worker tried again, contacting the board on her behalf.

Accessibility advocate David Lepofsky says lack of laws leaves disabled people few options beyond fighting their cases in front of human rights tribunals 'one barrier at a time.' (Gary Morton/CBC)

She was told the board already had a plan for new doors but there would be no automatic push-button system due to security concerns of the doors being open too long.

That explanation is "a total red herring," according to Lepofsky.

"You could design doors with optical sensors to protect against that. But even a manual door, with a lock, there's no guarantee that requires it to be held open only long enough for the person with the key to get through."

Meanwhile, Marzo remains homebound and frustrated.

Marzo led an active life before post-operative sepsis made her an amputee. She says she knew she’d face struggles as a disabled person, but never expected to be fighting for a door. (Submitted by Verna Marzo)

"I don't want to only benefit me. I want people who have lesser mobility to benefit as well. Because it's not easy to just be staying at home and be depressed," she said.

The property management company declined to answer Go Public's questions, claiming it was a legal matter and referring us to the condo board.

Go Public made repeated requests to board members for comment; all went unanswered.

'Get with the program'

Automatic doors would cost between $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the design, according to Sean Crump from Universal Access, a Calgary company that provides advice to businesses on how to make buildings more accessible.

Crump says there is public funding available to qualified candidates to help pay for building modifications, though it's not clear if Marzo's building qualifies. 

"There are a few resources. The federal government has an Enabling Access Fund that allows funds to be put into accessible design for spaces and buildings — and it's done a lot of good." 

Sean Crump, CEO of Calgary-based Universal Access, says accessibility renovations can improve buildings for everyone, not just disabled people. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

More than three million people over the age of 15 have at least one physical disability according to the most recent Statistics Canada numbers from 2017.

On July 11, the Accessible Canada Act came into force. Lepofsky says it's a well intentioned effort at mandating barrier-free access, but it, too, falls short by covering only sectors within Ottawa's jurisdiction like banking, telecommunications and the federal government.

He says that leaves a mish-mash of accessibility laws — or none at all — at the provincial level. Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are the only provinces with that kind of legislation.

For most disabled persons, Ontario is not a place of opportunity but one of countless, dispiriting, soul-crushing barriers.- David Onley, former Ontario lieutenant governor

"We need the seven provinces in Canada that don't have a provincial accessibility law to enact one — to get with the program," Lepofsky said.

But even in those provinces, Marzo would have little or no recourse. Manitoba and Nova Scotia's legislation don't address the responsibilities of condo boards.

Ontario's does, but since it was implemented in 2005, it's done little to help people with disabilities, according to a review released in January by former lieutenant governor David Onley.

"We are almost 14 years later," Onley, who was Canada's first lieutenant governor with a physical disability, wrote, "and the promised accessible Ontario is nowhere in sight."

"For most disabled persons, Ontario is not a place of opportunity but one of countless, dispiriting, soul-crushing barriers."

Marzo tells Go Public's Rosa Marchitelli her lack of door access is taking a toll on her independence. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Changing the building codes could also help, according to Lepofsky. But, though national and provincial codes cover new buildings and major renovations, older buildings like Marzo's are under no obligation to renovate.

All of this, Lepofsky says, leaves people with disabilities to deal with problems "one battle at a time" through human rights complaints.

The national and provincial human rights codes say buildings used by the public need to be accessible. 

Fight for doors 'hideous'

Marzo says everywhere she turned no one could — or would — help. She says her call to the Alberta Human Rights Commission wasn't returned and the City of Calgary told her there is nothing it can do.

"They just keep [telling me] call this person or this person and eventually someone from City of Calgary called me and said they cannot force the condo board to put the door in because it's not the law."

Go Public took Marzo's situation to provincial and federal lawmakers.

Watch: Verna Marzo says she's determined not to let any barriers stand in her way

She was told she'd likely never walk again

4 years ago
Duration 0:15
While in rehabilitation therapy, doctors told Verna Marzo she'd likely never walk again. She learned to walk and says she is determined not to let any barriers stand in her way.

Jennifer Dagsvik, spokesperson for Alberta's Ministry of Community and Social Service, says the province is "monitoring" the new federal and existing provincial laws. 

She says while Alberta lacks an accessibility law, people with disabilities can seek help under the Alberta Human Rights Act and the Premier's Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Ottawa's most recent minister of public services and procurement and accessibility didn't answer Go Public's questions directly.

Marzo says she feels trapped inside her building, sometimes waiting hours for someone to help her operate the doors. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Instead Carla Qualtrough sent a general statement, referring to the Accessible Canada Act and the accessibility review board — the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization (CASDO) — it created. 

"While CASDO is still in its early stages of development, it has been made evident by Canadians and members of the disability community that standards in new and existing buildings is a priority," Qualtrough said. 

Marzo says she won't give up, saying it's "hideous" she's had to fight this hard to be able to enter and exit the building she lives in. 

She's planning to talk to a lawyer for advice on what to do next.

"They will get old too," she says, referring to members of her condo board. "And they will lose their strength. And they will thank me for that door if they will do it now."


Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.

With files by Jenn Blair