I have done my fair share of moving over the years and have recently moved back to BC following a five year nesting period in Calgary. In fact this is my third move in the last twelve years which coincidentally are the only moves where I had to take wheelchair living into account. Prior to that I had always been on crutches but with my shoulders shot the days of using my crutches ended in 1997. It has been all wheelchair since then which really opened my eyes to access issues. So hopefully this will give other wheelchair users some idea on what to look for.
First of all don’t put a lot of faith in the words “wheelchair accessible”. I have come to discover that that term is often a misnomer. There are different levels and a wide spread between “wheelchair accessible” and “wheelchair friendly”. Any of those places that were build to accommodate the wide range of wheelchair accessible are full and the tenants will not be moving for a while.
I grew up in Calgary so when I decided to leave BC following 17 years on Vancouver Island I decided to return to Calgary. To make a long story short I hunted for an apartment in Calgary in the inner city with the expressed purpose of not having to use my car a lot. I checked with the City’s accessible housing program to find out what was available. What I discovered was a five year waiting list and staff who couldn’t understand why “these people never move”. I felt like giving her a shake and saying to her “where will they move”.
This really gets into the cost of living with a disability but I want to focus on tenancy. Through my own research I would estimate that almost 70% of affordable housing was not available to a wheelchair user. Basement suites and three story walk ups just don’t cut it when you use a wheelchair. So I found a place I could work around and settled (in more ways than one).
Flash forward five years and my 86 year old mother was really hoping to have at least one of her children living close by as an emotional support. Being in the best position to do this I stepped forward. This came about during a visit to see her in Kelowna in June 2013 and was complimented by my son/grandson coming up from Vancouver Island to share the visit. There were certain things I needed to put in place first and let my mother know the earliest I could do this would be October 1. I wasn’t crazy about driving six hundred kilometres to apartment hunt so my mother a few of her friends took that on for me. They would text me pictures.
What I discovered was a whole list of issues I should have given them based on details that even I didn’t consciously realize at the time. So if you are wheelchair dependent and looking for a place to live here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Having an elevator does not guarantee accessibility. I lived on the 16th floor in Calgary but I couldn’t get my wheelchair into the bathroom. As an old polio survivor I still have the luxury of walking on my knees so I was able to use the bathroom (this was advertised as a wheelchair accessible building).
- Is using the deck or balcony important to you? My apartment in Victoria (12th floor) nor my apartment in Calgary had balconies I could get my wheelchair out to. The one in Kelowna has an accessible balcony but I live on the second floor of a wood framed building. Wood framed translates as noisier.
- If you use a vehicle what parking arrangements are there? My Calgary apartment had outdoor and underground parking but no disabled parking spots even though the building was built five years after the amended building code. The outdoor spots had plug-ins that a person in a wheelchair would have never been able to get to and when winter temperatures can dip to lower than -30 you need that plug-in. The building management was able to find an underground spot by a concrete pillar that allowed me enough room to open my drivers door wide enough to get my wheelchair out but I had to depend on the person parked next to me to park far enough over that I could wheel between their vehicle and the pillar. The other problem with outdoors is cleaning the snow off of your car. My Kelowna apartment has no underground parking, no plug-ins and no identifiable disabled parking stalls. They accommodated me by assigning me two stalls giving me lots of room but I still need to sweep snow when required. It may not get as cold in Kelowna but it does snow
- Bathrooms. I have yet to find an apartment that has a truly wheelchair accessible bathroom. My Kelowna one I can squeeze my chair through the door if required but it isn’t going any further and no way is it turning around.
- Kitchen can also be problematic. My Calgary one was a walk through galley kitchen which was not wide enough to turn a wheelchair around in. This did make accessing the fridge difficult because of the direction the fridge door swung when opening but you learn to work around it. Never trust a friend to put things in the fridge for you because there is never a guarantee that you will be able to reach it after they have left. The same thing is true of the cupboards. Most of my dishes, etc are housed in dining room cabinets that I purchased. That traditional cupboard above the fridge, totally useless to a wheelchair user. Although they are very difficult to find ovens with the controls on the lower front are ideal. You don’t burn nearly as many armpit hairs reaching over the burners to turn them off. My Kelowna apartment, great kitchen with lots of room but still some inaccessible cupboards.
- A few things I didn’t think to tell my mother. One is garbage disposal. My Calgary apartment had garbage chutes on each floor. Didn’t really work for me because of the 28″ wide door. I couldn’t get my wheelchair through but it wasn’t that difficult to take my garbage down to the garbage room and dump it directly. Unfortunately my Kelowna apartment has a number of outdoor garbage and recycling bins that, even if I manage to get to them, they are to high to reach from a wheelchair. So I pay a teenager five bucks every time she takes my garbage out for me. Another of the economic costs to living independently.
- Thermostats. My Kelowna apartment is electric heat so every room has its own thermostat. There are a number of them I can’t reach because of furnishings so I don’t adjust the heat very often. Be aware of that and the air-conditioning. Kelowna can get very warm in the summer (often over 35 degrees Celsius) and I already know I can’t reach my air conditioner. It is high up on the living room wall with the controls out of the reach of even my grabber. I will deal with that this summer.
And of course location. In Calgary I was in the inner city (basically downtown) so I could go to a lot of places without moving my car. Even wheeling around the block for some exercise was an option which I did a lot of. My Kelowna location requires a lot of car use. Everything is within ten minutes maximum but still to far to wheel. I can go out for some exercise however there are a lot of people around here who seem to like their creeping plants going over sidewalks.
So with all of that said happy apartment hunting!