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Universal Access benefits everyone

Gina Lacasse with colleague Leslie Bagg

Gina Lacasse feels like a very lucky person. She has a family, a job she loves at the NDG Community Council, and a solid network of friends and colleagues. The fact that she’s confined to a wheelchair for most of her day is rarely on her mind, except when something, like a dysfunctional elevator, compels her to ask for assistance. “I only feel disabled when I feel my physical limitations,” Lacasse says.

She credits her foster mom, Aline Lacasse, for recognizing her potential and her “drive beyond belief” to be autonomous. “She never asked what I couldn’t do, but pushed me as far as I could go.”

Her home on Benny Farm, adapted to her needs, brings a great measure of independence to her life. It features hallways that are wide enough to navigate in a wheelchair without scratching the walls. There are no stairs. Removable cupboards allow her to use the sink. Most important, the apartment is designed to be easily modifiable if necessary, should counters and light switches need to be moved.

Though Lacasse is happy at home, she is frustrated by not being able to help her increasingly frail mother as much as she would like. Since her mom’s residence is not adapted, it would take a group of people to lift the wheelchair and help Lacasse negotiate the entrance.

As our society ages, Lacasse believes that what used to be seen as accommodations for people with disabilities is now of necessity to older people. She says her dream is that all public and private spaces will eventually become barrier-free. “Seniors can benefit from adapting their home because their quality of life will improve. There will be less displacement; if you need a wheelchair, you won’t have to move. Physical limitation is everybody’s primary fear. I think it doesn’t have to be.”

The concept of accessibility is still a work in progress that may take three main forms: Adaptation means adding specialized equipment in certain parts of the home. Older buildings can be transformed, sometimes at great expense, to accommodate special needs. This is done on a case-by-case basis in already existing environments.

Since 2000, section 3.8 in the Quebec Building Code stipulates that new buildings must be accessible. Written with wheelchair users in mind, the needs of people with visual, auditory or cognitive impairment may not necessarily be met all the time. As well, the accommodations may be separate from what the majority of people will use, implying an unintended and subtle form of exclusion.

Universal access, or universal design, tries to meet the widest variety of needs, allowing all people to use the facilities in the same way. For example, rather than have a ramp for a few and stairs for most, a slight incline would allow everyone to enter and exit the same way. This benefits mothers pushing strollers or elderly people who use walkers as well.

It’s not easy finding an adapted home, especially an affordable one. According to Josiane Lamothe of the Société d’habitation du Québec, of the 16,074 social housing units that have been created since 2003, only 6% are adapted. At Chez Soi on Benny Farm, all 91 subsidized rental units for seniors are occupied, with 50 names on the waiting list.

Lacasse sees adapted housing as the solution that would keep an increasingly greater number of people out of institutions and also as a way to create a more inclusive society. “My struggle is personal but I’m doing it publicly for seniors and special-needs children.”

“Your first experience of yourself is in your home. If you’re severely disabled, your limitation will be directly proportional to the degree that your home is adapted to your needs.”

The SHQ’s Programme d’adaptation de domicile (PAD) can help subsidize necessary adaptations to your home. If you rent, the landlord must apply.

For low-income seniors over 65, the Logements adaptes pour aines autonomes (LAAA) may be helpful. If you rent, the landlord must consent to the work in writing.

Info: 800-463-4315

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