Inspired by daughter, architect approaches accessibility as a 'lifestyle'
Saskatoon designer strived to make home more accessible, then translated that work to the community
Megen Olfert smiles thinking about the backyard treehouse her father designed for her when she was a kid.
It was wide enough for a motorised wheelchair to maneuver inside, and a cement path wound its way through the backyard up to the treehouse instead of stairs or a ladder.
"I felt like I was on equal ground as a kid," said Megen, recalling friends coming over to hang out, "because sometimes when you're disabled it means you have to do things differently even though you can do the same thing. It made me feel included."
Megen was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine months old. It became clear to her parents, Charles and Leila Olfert, that their daughter would need a wheelchair and their house would not meet Megen's needs. So, Charles began designing a new home for the family.
Ceiling track lifts were installed in Megen's room and bathroom, which allowed her to safely transfer from her wheelchair to her bed and bathtub. Wide hallways ensured Megen could freely move throughout the main floor, and the driveway was level with the street so that she could roll into the house instead of using a wheelchair ramp.
"I think that there is a kind of negative public connotation when you see a giant wheelchair ramp coming up to the front of your house. I don't like that," said Charles, an architect and one of the founders of AODBT Architecture and Interior Design in Saskatoon. "There are so many ways to do a wheelchair ramp that is built right into the landscape and are more subtle."
Charles works with businesses and organizations to make their spaces more accessible for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. He credits Megen with expanding his outlook on accessibility issues.
Megen was having an impact and helping others in our city and she didn't even know it.- Charles Olfert, Megen's father and co-founder of AODBT Architecture and Interior Design
"Accessibility isn't really a passion of mine," he said. "It's a lifestyle because we have a daughter with a disability. Everything that I've been doing has this lens that's part of my work."
When Megen's elementary school, George Vanier School, needed a ramp in 1988, Charles helped build it. When high school was on the horizon for her, Charles helped design St. Joseph, including a top-notch wheelchair accessible bathroom.
"Megen was having an impact and helping others in our city and she didn't even know it," he said.
Megen is now 39 and lives with her service dog, Que, in a condominium run by Cheshire Homes in Saskatoon, which facilitates independent living for those with disabilities.
Her father helped design the home to meet all of her accessibility needs. It even features a device that gives Megen autonomy when it comes to feeding Que.
"I want to be able to feed my own dog without assistance," said Megen. "I do this every day, twice a day."
For the past 14 years, Megen has worked at Home Depot in Saskatoon's Stonebridge suburb. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the store has made her a star with customers, and she hopes her presence will remind them of the potential of people with disabilities.
"We need to get more employers to be more accessible to both physically and intellectually disabled people," she said.
Charles, meanwhile, hopes more businesses will see the benefits of prioritizing accessibility in their design. He is one of a handful of Saskatchewan architects who have taken the Rick Hansen Foundation's certification course that teaches how spaces can be more inviting to people with disabilities. It includes everything from designing signs to help alleviate anxiety to creating spaces for people with hearing issues.
There are only three buildings in Saskatchewan that have been certified "gold" by the Rick Hansen Foundation: AODBT and the Ronald McDonald House in Saskatoon, and Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
"It's going to take a little extra money and space and time, so you have to find a client that maybe has that mission in mind already that wants to provide those services," he said. "It also does project a good public image."
Charles would also love to see the Saskatoon widen its sidewalks and make them smoother for people who are in wheelchairs. Oftentimes, Megen will operate her power wheelchair on the street while Que walks on the sidewalk because of the shape they are in.
Something Megen believes would make a difference when it comes to accessibility in Saskatoon — that doesn't cost a thing — is empathy.
"I would say try being in a wheelchair one whole day to know what it is like for us who are physically disabled to know exactly what to do. If you're not in that situation, sometimes you don't even know so you have to be in their shoes first before you know what to do."
This article is based on an episode of YXE Underground. It's a podcast focusing on people in Saskatoon who are making a difference in the community but are not receiving the attention they deserve in social or mainstream media. You can listen to YXE Underground here. You can also download episodes on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice.
- Read more YXE Underground articles here.