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Breaking Barriers: Accessibility at Home a Costly Process

Blair Crawford
Updated: March 30, 2019

Its just a few centimetres high, but the sill of the sliding glass door that leads to the back deck of her Barrhaven home is a mountain to Jennifer Glanz.

Its little, but I cant get over it, said Glanz, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Glanz and her husband, Eli, have already installed a $4,000 electric lift in their garage so that Jennifer can get out of the house, and recently completed a renovation to make their bathroom barrier free.

They moved with their daughter Emelia, 3 1/2, to a bungalow a few years ago when Jennifers deteriorating condition made it impossible for her to manage the stairs in their former two-storey home. The small ramp over the door sill is the next item on their reno list for summer if we ever get a summer, Jennifer jokes.

Its the next project. And a ramp down to the grass. Emilia will be playing on the grass this summer and it would be nice to be there with her.

Whether its a senior who wants to age in place in her own home, a person battling a debilitating illness, or someone injured in a sudden, catastrophic tragedy like the Westboro OC Transpo bus crash, those facing disability find that barriers abound in the home. In fact, 22 per cent Canadians live with some sort of physical disability, according to Statistics Canada.

The older you get, the more likely you are to have a disability, says Patrick Curran, national executive director of Independent Living Canada, a national non-profit agency that advocates for those living with disabilities and promotes independent living.

And if you live long enough, you will have a disability.

Many of the modifications needed to make a home accessible are obvious: a wheelchair ramp to the front door, for example. Others arent so apparent.

One item thats a really big, especially for someone with head injuries, is lighting, said Sean MacGinnis, co-founder BuildAble, an Ottawa company that specializes in building and renovating homes for accessibility. You want lighting that wont put a strain on your eyes. Or if its for someone who has a visual impairment, better lighting will eliminate shadows and help them see any changes in elevation in their home.

MacGinnis founded BuildAble five years ago with partner Kyla Cullain, a registered nurse. The company works closely with their clients medical teams their family doctor or occupational therapist, for example to develop an appropriate construction plan, he said.

We started the company out focusing on people who are aging in place, but weve found the majority of our clients are people who have had a medical crisis, MS or a stroke or something like that and we do have a lot of people whove been in vehicle accidents too. Theyre in mid-life and they want to stay in their homes or they have family that they dont want to move.

For Eli and Jennifer Glanz, that meant redoing their bathroom to make it accessible. BuildAble installed a barrier free bathroom that Jennifer can roll up to and swing herself into a spare wheelchair that stays in the shower. The tile floor slopes gently to a drain and a waterproof barrier under the entire bathroom floor means spills or floods cause no damage.

The old sink and vanity was replaced with a floating sink that lets Jennifer wheel up to it like a desk. Three heavy-duty handrails give support and stability at the toilet.

For the longest time we had a standard tub and shower that you see in most showers. Jennifer cant transfer herself into a standard tub, even if theres a shower seat. It would be me physically lifting her up and into the tub. That was hard for both of us, Eli said.

She keeps reminding me, I only have one back.

It brought more independence to me, Jennifer said. Before, I would have to have him home and helping me have a shower. Now I dont. He doesnt know how many times I shower.

It cost $15,000 to renovate the bathroom, about 80 per cent of which was paid for with grants from March of Dimes. The family had to cover the cost of the garage lift on their own.

Another clever addition are offset hinges that allow doors to swing completely out of the way, adding a crucial extra five centimetres width to the doorway for Jennifers chair to pass.

The simplest and most common modification to a home is to add grab bars and handrails, MacGinnis said, including railings on both sides of a staircase. In the kitchen, countertops and cabinets can be made to lower to wheelchair level, while full-extension drawers are easier to access without awkward reaching.

One of BuildAbles biggest jobs was to add a full elevator to a home for a man with Parkinsons Disease, he said.

The cost can vary widely. The cost of home modifications are often included in the insurance payout for accident victims or as in the case of an Ottawa Public servant who is suing the city for $6.3 million for injuries in the Westboro bus crash part of the lawsuit claim. Others are helped with the cost through grants from the March of Dimes and other charities or through tax breaks.

Theres a lot of low-cost things we can do that have a high impact, MacGinnis said. A grab bar might cost $100. A second staircase railing $1,000. A wooden ramp to the door can range from $500 to $5,000, while a more aesthetically pleasing ramp of interlocking brick could cost $15,000 to $20,000.

A barrier-free bathroom costs between $12,000 and $15,000 while a full reno to make a kitchen full accessible can run up to $30,000, he said.

In Ontario, someone who has suffered catastrophic injuries in a car crash is eligible for $1 million in under the provinces the provinces Statutory Accident Benefit Schedule. But for non-catastrophic injuries, that benefit is capped at $65,000 and will only last five years, said lawyer Najma Rashid, a partner in Howard Yegendorf & Associates.

Just because someones injuries arent catastrophic, doesnt mean theyre not serious, Rashid said. Many people with serious injuries might be stuck with that $65,000 and its only available for five years so they have to make a judgment call as to whether theyre going to use part of the money for changes to their home or for ongoing treatment needs.

Additional costs could become part of a lawsuit claim, she said. Lawyers would work with their clients medical team or hire an occupational therapist or consultant to determine what renovations are needed and their cost.

And if they do claim it in a lawsuit, they have to wait for that lawsuit to be over. Or self fund it and look for a reimbursement, but most people dont have the money to pay for it themselves.

Those looking for more information on improving accessibility will be able to find it Independent Living Canadas AccessABLE Technology Expo on May 30 at the Ottawa Conference and Events Centre on Coventry Road. The one-day expo will bring together 20 exhibitors with a broad range of products for disabilities such as visual or hearing loss, cognitive impairment and mental health issues. Admission is free, Curran said.

Were doing this to build awareness for Independent Living Canada, Curran said. But we also want to give to hope to people who have disabilities to show them that there are people out there doing research and introducing new products that will be of interest to them.

For more information, visit

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