Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

My dream home is no big deal, but will I ever live in it?

Kim White's definition of a dream home doesn't include two-car garages and winding staircases — just a level entry, 34-inch doorway, and an accessible washroom.

Kim White isn't looking for a mansion, but even a modest home seems out of reach

Kim White has lived in several apartments in the St. John's area and says it's really hard to find one that doesn't have some accessibility issue. (CBC/submitted)

Many of us have that picture of our dream home tucked away in some part of our brain. My definition of a dream home doesn't include two-car garages and winding staircases — just a level entry, 34-inch doorway, and an accessible washroom. 

This may not seem like much to ask for, but it's surprisingly hard to find in the biggest city in our province.

I have had a disability since I was three years old. Radiation destroyed a spinal tumour and saved my life, but it left lots of nerve, bone, and muscle damage, resulting in partial paralysis.

Kim White says the wide hallways of her current apartment are a great feature. (Submitted)

After radiation came rehabilitation, long leg braces and crutches, and then I made my way off into the world. I faced challenges related to my mobility, but I could walk fair distances and climb stairs.

Don't get me wrong. Issues with accessibility still frustrated me, but I was kind of flying below the accessibility radar. However, I knew in my heart, that as I aged, I would need to think more about how accessibility would impact my life. But, for the most part, I was doing my thing. 

'Nice to have'

Life changes meant I needed to rent a two-bedroom apartment for myself and my daughter. I needed a place with two-car parking, was pet friendly and at a reasonable price point. This was definitely a "hard to find" list, so adding accessibility became a "nice to have." 

I was essentially a prisoner in my home because it was not accessible.- Kim White

I found a lovely space that fit the bill: a basement apartment with a five-step stairwell. When I moved in, it was doable — I could climb stairs, and it was a great apartment. 

Then, as life does, the unexpected happened. After 40-plus years of living under the radar, a blood clot in my leg left me housebound. This affected every aspect of my life and work. What I saw before as a "nice to have" in terms of accessibility was now, for me, a necessity.

My leg swelled so big that I could barely squeeze my leg into my brace long enough to get out of my apartment and head to emerg in my wheelchair via an accessible cab. I spent the next five weeks relying on my wheelchair. I was essentially a prisoner in my home because it was not accessible.

Wake-up call

This was a wake-up call for me. When I was well enough, I embarked on the task of finding an apartment that was accessible — or at least had a ground-level entryway so, if needed again, I could get in and out using my wheelchair. 

A recent health scare made Kim White realize that an apartment with an accessible ground level entrance was not just 'nice to have' but a necessity. (Submitted)

After many visits to view "ground-level apartments" that weren't level entry, I did find an apartment. But what I discovered after I moved in was that, without an accessible vehicle, I had to rely on standing to get my wheelchair out of the hatch of my vehicle and assembling it in a sloped driveway. Even though the slope was not huge, it was a challenge.

This lead me to another apartment, which is currently not fully accessible either, but it will be better as soon as the two steps outside are converted into a ramp.

Think of others

My example is pretty mild compared to many others I know, but it speaks to a very important problem we are facing in this province. If I had such a challenge, how difficult would it be for someone requiring a fully accessible home? 

Beyond a person's own housing needs, think about visiting others, say at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or just on a Friday night. But you can't even get in their door. 

Kim White said anyone with accessible needs will check beforehand if a house or building has an appropriate washroom. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

And then think about accessible washrooms: when you gotta go, you gotta go. Imagine enjoying New Year's Eve at a friend's home and celebrating with a little bubbly, and you need the washroom, only to discover that it's at the top of a flight of stairs.

The truth is, as an individual with accessibility needs, you rarely realize this after you drink the bubbly. You check these things out beforehand, and you just do not go somewhere without things like an accessible entrance or washroom. New Year's is likely spent at home. 

Importance of universal design

We have a lot of knowledge about how to improve the lives of people with disabilities, but it seems we have acquired it without wisdom.

Much has been done in the field of universal design — a building design so it can be used by all, regardless of age, size, or ability. Think about the importance of this with our aging population. 

But we don't see many examples of it in public buildings or homes in the province. Something as simple as lever handles (instead of doorknobs or round sink handles) seems to escape us.

Some will say it's a cost issue. But if it is done at the design/construction stage, universal design and accessibility can cost as low as one to five per cent of the construction. And other things have no cost factor — for example, non-slip flooring can cost substantially less than slippery hardwood or ceramic floors. 

I guess the harsh reality is that nothing changes without that will to have things change — and that will has been missing. But we all must be very aware that what we might decide to do or not do "to help someone else" today could be the very thing we need ourselves tomorrow.  

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One. (CBC)