Searching for Barrier-Free Housing

Many of CERA’s clients have mobility impairments and other disabilities that make it very difficult to access and retain affordable, appropriate housing. Here’s an excellent description of one couple’s struggle to find barrier-free housing in Toronto:

There are several landmark events in the life of a young couple. The first knowing glance across the table, the first date, the first kiss… the list goes on.  As the relationship progresses, these landmarks have a tendency to progress in magnitude. One of the most exciting ones for any young couple, it could be argued, is the search for the first apartment together. It is the quest to find that nice little haven where cohabitation can flourish. But what happens when that search comes up empty? What happens when that apartment does not exist? This is the situation that I currently find myself in. And as has become my recent custom whenever anything in my life needs a good rant, I decided to write about it.

Let’s get the parameters of the story out of the way. My name is Tim Rose and I am a 25 year old Canadian student doing my post-graduate degree in law and human rights at the University of Nottingham in the UK. I also have a severe physical disability, cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia if you want to get technical. I spend almost every waking hour confined to a very heavy and equally as expensive power wheelchair. I also, through some twist of luck, have a girlfriend who is able bodied (not that this should matter but it bears some relevance on the story) and currently finishing her masters degree in Occupational Therapy in Canada. Her name is Natalie. We plan on living together upon my return to Canada in August. Now that we have those parameters out of the way, comes the challenge. There is nowhere for us to live.

It’s not that we don’t have money. In fact, we have enough saved up between the two of us to survive (at least for a while) while paying a reasonable rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. We would be quite happy to do that. The issues arise in the form of the 500 pound beast which I sit in for 16 hours a day, and all of the joys that go along with that. We have been searching for this elusive mirage of an apartment for the last couple of months, asking for the very modest following considerations: a two-bedroom apartment, where we can feel safe and where I can shower (i.e. accessible roll in shower required). These are seemingly impossible demands to fill, as no such place exists without an accompanying waiting list of at least two years. That’s right, individuals with disabilities and their partners are expected to have their lives planned out two years in advance. I’m not saying that I am the picture of spontaneity, but come on!

We have scoured high and low, fired off e-mails left right and center and asked for help, wherever we could think to do so. I am not for a second saying that we do not appreciate the assistance that we have been given, as there have been people who have gone to great lengths to lend a hand in our search, but just that the results have not been promising. Over 2+ months of searching, and we have found one building with a decent sized waiting list, an inflatable roll in shower that could be assembled in a living room or closet, and a suggestion from a couple of sources that I could, in a pinch, go and shower at the local gym or YMCA.

It is true that the “right to shower” is not one enshrined in any international legal document. But, the right to live free of discrimination based on disability has been enshrined in many international and domestic legal documents, including the Canadian ones. And so it is with the greatest of ease that I brand the fight which Natalie and I currently find ourselves in, a definite “human rights” battle.

What we have in this situation is a blatant failure of the legendary Canadian social safety net, which may see an upper-middle-class postgraduate degree holder made homeless by a lack of options. Begging to try and get myself into a facilitated living system, thereby forfeiting my right to live with whom I wish, is not an option that I am considering. What I am considering is working to shed light on the fact that housing options for individuals with disabilities in Ontario suck. It is not only severely limiting of my independence (which interestingly enough, is now directly encased in international law through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) but also on the independence of my girlfriend. The bottom line is that Natalie and I want to live together, and are not going to stop fighting until a suitable solution is presented to us.

We are not asking for anything specific via this article. Its purpose was to inform you of a situation that is ongoing, and to bring attention to this sad state of accessible housing in Canada and around the world. This issue goes beyond Natalie and I, it speaks to the fundamental freedoms, which in the year 2011, should be granted without problem. It speaks to a continued struggle for individuals with disabilities to have to fight every step of the way in a country that is celebrated for its human rights record. We are pissed off, and want to tell you about it!

After all, what else is a guy to do when he’s all dressed up with no place to go??

February 7, 2011

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  • I am aware of the difficulties. Working with a client who has an immediate need to move and whose mobility has been decreasing, I have been trying to find buildings that advertise as accessible and there are very few. He doesn’t even need a fully modified unit. May I suggest that you try Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment of Regent Park. They may have a market rent unit in their beautiful new buildings. I have done a site visit and the modified unit has great accessible appliances and a roll-in shower. I honestly don’t know if they have market rent units in the building but it’s worth a try.

  • Maybe, maybe not. But five years ago, The National Association of Realtors, had already sent up the red flags about the amount of houses coming on the market vs. housing starts.
    One of the reasons, according to the housing experts, at HUD reported that each year six million people will turn 65 and that 7 out of 10 persons over 65 will have a debilitating accident that will leave them temporarily or permanently with a mobility issue.
    So that people who thought they were building the last home they would grow old in was not accessible for them. Living in a two story or split-level house with kitchens and baths that were no longer usable for them. Steps and stairways that prohibited them from using with a walker or wheelchair.
    Did you also know that 70% of all Americans have one type of disability or another? Ranging from the slight, such as vision, hearing or complications from obesity, to the most severe.
    So what were their choices? Extensive and very costly remodeling, selling their home and building a barrier free home plan or moving into a retirement community with barrier free home plans. That is why Architectural Designers are designing plans that are usable today as well as anticipating tomorrows needs.
    Whether you call them barrier free plans, universal design plans, lifestyle homes, wheelchair plans, aging in place home plans, accessible home plans. They all fall under the same specifications established by the Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University.
    The Universal Design Studio draws custom home plans that are perfect for today and accommodate your needs as you grow older. As well, we specialize in barrier free designs for people that already have special needs.
    How do we know Barrier Free Designs? All the people associated with the Universal Design Studio have one type of disability or another!

  • Six years ago I as diagnosed with a stroke and have been confined to a wheelchair since, I had to leave the apartment I was in because people didn’t like the chair in the elevator and were abusive! Anyways I ended up homeless sleeping on the streets downtown Toronto, the shelters said my only option was a nursing home! I am on ODSP and do not have a lot of money and barrier free housing when available(which isn’t too often) is so expensive! It is really sad that people through no fault of their own are left homeless or dumped in nursing homes because they need an accessible unit that just isn’t available!