Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

Corner Brook woman can't navigate city in her wheelchair

61 year old Katie Colbourne says the Corner Brook streets, stores and public places are not accessible and she wants the city to do more.

Katie Colbourne says even the mall has barriers so it's not safe to shop

Katie Colbourne is paralyzed on one side of her body and is legally blind. She finds it very difficult to get around Corner Brook in her wheelchair (Colleen Connors/CBC)

At 61, Katie Colbourne is the youngest person living at the Lohnes Complex retirement home, by at least 20 years. 

She has no other choice but to live here — she needs the care.

Colbourne's body gave up on her eight years ago when she had a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night at her home in Corner Brook. She was quickly moved to St. John's where she had a stroke while in a coma.

After eight months of rehabilitation, she was able to walk and talk again but lost feeling in the left side of her body and is legally blind.

Colbourne had a stroke and brain aneurysm eight years ago that left her in a wheelchair. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

The vibrant woman who used to own a busy hair salon in Corner Brook and knows everyone in the city is now trapped in her wheelchair in an old-age home.

"The doctor said, 'You are better to a point where what you got is what you got for the rest of your life. Nothing will ever change for you now.' Big thing with me now is learning to accept it," Colbourne said. 

Trapped at home

But accepting is not easy because she feels she cannot navigate the city. 

If Colbourne wanted to leave the retirement complex she would first have to call the one taxi in town that can accommodate her wheelchair. The driver would pick her up and drop her off.

"It would be very difficult. I have to think really hard about going out. Trying to get into a place or a restaurant is not easy. There's no handicap ramps, there's no door accessibility and no wheelchair provided anywhere," she said.

Doors like this are heavy and hard to open. Colbourne often has to ask for help. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Places like City Hall, the Arts and Culture Centre and the Rotary Arts Centre are wheelchair accessible but just opening the doors is exhausting.

"Getting through the handicap doors is the worst. Its hard for me to handle two doors and open up one door to get through. You just cant do it. Most times we have to wait for someone to come along and help us," she said.

Even the mall has barriers

Colbourne doesn't feel safe wheeling down West Street either. She said the cobblestone sidewalks are too high and once she is on the sidewalk, she struggles to get her wheelchair back down to the road. 

Doors, ramps and hefty sidewalks aren't the only barriers to feeling accepted.

Colborne, who enjoys dressing up and looking nice, would like to be able to shop at the local mall. 

Katie Colbourne has no feeling in her left leg and foot, and is unable to push herself in a wheelchair. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

But some of her favourite clothing stores place their racks too close together. She can't navigate through the rows of blazers and sweaters.

"If there was ever a fire when I was at the store, I would never get out," she said.

"I went in and a lady told me to get out and said, 'You can't be in this store.' I was devastated. A stranger comes up to me, someone in a wheelchair, and tells me that ... did she think I want to be in this chair?" 

Colbourne would like to see all restaurants, businesses and shops in Corner Brook decked out with wheelchair ramps, accessible doors and bathrooms. She feels if the physical changes are made, people's views would also change.

Improving access 

While the provincial government sets regulations through the Buildings Accessibility Act, city councillor Linda Chaisson is working to improve accessibility for residents.

She recently started an inclusive committee where she speaks directly with people who have trouble getting around.

"The City of Corner Brook has been doing a lot more in recent years to help people who have difficulty getting around. Accessibility issues is totally on our radar and we are working really really hard to accommodate the people who need accommodation," said Chaisson

City councillor Linda Chaisson wants to hear from people in Corner Brook who struggle to get around. She started an inclusive committee to tackle accessibility issues. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Corner Brook has put extra wheelchairs in some public places and added more wheelchair accessible parking spaces.

"We are looking at it. Are we looking at it through the lens of the people who need it? No. But will we? Certainly," said Chaisson.

While Colbourne feels comfortable going to a few public places on her own, she said the city still has a long way to go before she will feel entirely comfortable leaving her room at the retirement home. 

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

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)

Colleen Connors