Kitchener-Waterloo

Man stuck hours daily on floor while province closes Assistive Devices office

Michael Wilson in Kitchener, Ont. says he spent several weeks stuck immobile in his apartment after his wheelchair broke while awaiting a replacement through the provincial Assistive Devices Program.

Michael Wilson says wheelchair broke while awaiting a replacement, then COVID-19 hit

Michael Wilson says he hasn't been able to move around his Kitchener apartment for weeks or leave to get essentials. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

A Kitchener man has spent nearly a month stuck in his apartment after his wheelchair fell apart and a replacement has been delayed.

Meanwhile, the province has shuttered its Assisted Devices Program office, which helps people access funds to pay for their wheelchairs and other mobility devices. 

Michael Wilson, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, receives a replacement every five years, paid for through the province's program. 

This year, he says he was due for a new wheelchair but that the process was delayed after the province initially rejected his application and he had to file an appeal.

Wilson was still using his old wheelchair on March 24 when he left his apartment to stock up on essentials. The motor and wheel fell off mid-trip, he says.

Without a functional wheelchair, Wilson been unable to venture out for grocery or banking trips, and has mostly been eating delivery pizza. He also can't comfortably change positions or move himself around his apartment.

"It's awkward," he said.

Office not processing applications

Although the province pays most of the cost of devices provided through the Assisted Devices Program, it's up to individual vendors to supply them.  

Corrinne Cave, who is with a local home care company working with Wilson, said she couldn't comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.

But she says her business's operations have been complicated by the fact that the program office was closed due to COVID-19 and is no longer answering the phone or processing new funding applications.  

"We're trying to figure out a balance on how to get these [devices] to people who do need it" while also considering what costs they can absorb, she said.

'Disrespectful' 

France Gélinas, NDP health critic and Nickel Belt MPP, told CBC News that vendors and people with disabilities have been left in a tough position following the closure of the office.

She says the program itself has long been due for an upgrade, so that people who need new wheelchairs and other devices can get them based on need rather than "arbitrary" rules.

For the time being, Gelinas says the office should at least have someone around to pick up the phone.  

"Right now, to not even be able to talk to them … I don't understand it," Gelinas told CBC News.

"It is disrespectful, it is causing a lot of real hardship to people who often have severe disabilities, depend on those wheelchairs, to anything else to live their lives, and now they're stuck."

Michael Wilson says he was using this wheelchair when it fell apart during a shopping trip. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Pandemic creates urgency

Ontario disability advocate David Lepofsky agrees. He says assistive devices are even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, now people have been told to physically distance and can't ask their friends and neighbours for extra help.

"The first thing [the province] should do is immediately re-open the assistive devices program and declare it essential," said Lepofsky.

"The second thing they should do is … essentially do a short-term surge to try to clear the backlog that will have now been created."

Province 'evaluating options'

A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province couldn't comment on individual cases. She said vendors will still receive payments based on historical invoices and can dispense and repair devices for clients who are eligible.

"We're currently evaluating options to provide greater continuity of services under the assisted devices program during the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement said.  

Wilson hopes the situation will lead to change in the way the province approaches its assistive devices program. 

He says they should replace wheelchairs more frequently, before safety becomes an issue. He thinks the program should also be more cautious about rejecting applications and requiring appeals for needed devices like wheelchairs, especially when it comes to situations like his. 

As of Monday, Wilson was still without a wheelchair. But after CBC News contacted the vendor and province about his story, Wilson was told his wheelchair would be delivered Wednesday. 

When it arrives, he says, he looks forward to finishing up the errands he started back in March.

David Lepofsky, Chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, says access to assistive devices is even more crucial during COVID-19, when people can't turn to their social circles for help. (Gary Morton/CBC)

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