An uphill climb

Bonnie Belec
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St. John’s woman with cerebral palsy faces challenges in public housing

Alisha Della Valle has climbed the 13 steps of her St. John’s home thousands of times over the last 14 years, but today it feels as though she’s just finished a hike up Signal Hill.

Alisha Della Valle is coping with living in a non-accessible Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. home.

“My legs are burning now,” she says as she sits on a burgundy office chair with wheels at the top of the stairs.

The 47-year-old, who was born with cerebral palsy, uses the chair to propel herself around the top floor of her three-level public housing unit discussing the obstacles she faces on a daily basis.

She quickly points out she isn’t complaining about the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. (NLHC). She says she is just telling it like it is.

“I like it here, but I’m not as young anymore and it isn’t accessible,” she says.

During a demonstration of how she manages to get into the bathroom, she leans on the doorknob with her left hand for support and reaches out with her right to grab a strategically placed handrail installed by her husband, Matthew.

“See, I have my ways,” she says, smiling.

Downstairs, she uses a mobility walker that she sits on and pushes herself around with, digging her heels into the floor for momentum. She also sits on it to cook.

Her unit was renovated four years ago and she asked NLHC to make the kitchen accessible, which it did. Handrails were also installed throughout the house.

Unlike many homes — especially this time of year, with boots, scarves and hats piled high in the porch — hers is clutter-free.

Matthew said they have to keep it that way so his wife can get around.

However, he said his biggest fear is that it may soon come to an end.

It’s her biggest fear, too.

Standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up, she said, “this is what I’m afraid of. That I won’t be able to do this.”

 Matthew said he’s beginning to get concerned.

 “She’s usually pretty quick, but I know the stairs are getting to her now. I can tell by the way she plops down in the chair when she gets to the top of the stairs. I think Housing has done quite a bit for us, but we really need to get in an accessible home soon,” he said.

“One day she was at the top and she yelled out to me. I came running over and looked up. She was just sitting there. She said, ‘I can’t move.’ She just froze,” he said.

Matthew said the corporation has suggested a couple of units over the past couple of years, but the units weren’t fully accessible.

“People just don’t get it,” he said.

Alisha works at the Spinal Cord Association, near her home, and uses a scooter to get there. Her front step didn’t have a ramp though, and she was told by the NLHC she wouldn’t be able to have one. With community support the couple bought an aluminum one so she could get out of her house and get to work.

“I love it. It gives me freedom,” she said, her left hand clutching the grip of her scooter.

“It’s spastic. The cerebral palsy affects my muscles,” she said riding down a 200-foot walkway that Matthew has shovelled for her.

He said recently being laid off from iron working has been a “blessing in disguise” — because at least he can clear a path for his wife and look after her while their three daughters are in school.

“If I was working, she wouldn’t get out,” he said.

St. John’s South MHA Tom Osborne has been questioning the provincial government’s commitment to affordable accessible housing this week during question period in the House of Assembly.

He cited different cases where people with disabilities were living in inaccessible housing, one of whom was Alisha.

Osborne told The Telegram this week the provincial government should be doing more.

“People with disabilities are being forced to compromise their safety in homes that are not accessible,” he said.

In the House Tuesday, Osborne asked the minister responsible for housing, Kevin O’Brien, four times how many units have been renovated since the province implemented a strategy in 2012 to improve accessibility, called Access, Inclusion and Equality.

“Nine million dollars’ worth,” O’Brien responded.

Osborne asked again.

“We got a little over a thousand — a thousand units — in this province that support seniors, in regards to having disabilities, alone, within our inventory in Newfoundland and Labrador Housing,” the minister said.

Osborne asked again.

“We continue to support seniors and people with disabilities in this province,” O’Brien said.

“As a matter of fact, I referenced in estimates yesterday, $600,000 in regards to accessibility in regards to vehicles, $200,000 of that, also as well,” said O’Brien.

Osborne said he never got the answer.

The housing corporation has 81 fully accessible units and through its Investment in Affordable Housing Program, since 2005 it has assisted in creating an additional 223 fully accessible units in partnerships with private sector and non-profit groups.

According to Dennis Kendell, executive director of regional operations for the NLHC,  there are 11 applications on the waiting list for accessible housing throughout the province. Nine of them are on the Avalon and two are in Grand Falls-Windsor.

“So, it’s not a huge number on the list and we normally handle these normal turnover processes, but sometimes we may have situations where people don’t want to move to certain areas, so it makes it a little more difficult,” he said.

Kendell said the majority of people on the list — all of whom are in wheelchairs — want to move to housing for affordability and not accessibility issues.

Up till now, he said, the corporation has been able to accommodate people with disabilities, and when it can’t it avails of an agreement with private landlords who have accessible homes.

“So should we rush out and build 12 units when we know we’re going to be able to satisfy the need over a short period of time? That’s the kinds of things we have to look at from a budget perspective,” he said.

One of the biggest problems with the housing units, Kendell said, is that most of them were built before there was any requirement to provide accessible housing.

In 1986, the province signed the global agreement with Canada Mortgage Housing Corp. which states that for every 10 public housing units, one has to be accessible.

“Now, we’ve been doing that since, but unfortunately most of our units were built 50 and 60 years ago and it’s just not feasible to try to make them accessible,” he said.

Regarding ramps, Kendell said more than 200 have been added to units around the province and every case is different.

He said they have to be built to code and each request is evaluated by a staff engineer.

While there’s no plan in the immediate future to build any new accessible units, Kendell said two will open in Pleasantville in a new seniors housing complex in a partnership with the City of St. John’s, and several others have been built around the city over the past few years.

For now Alisha said she is content to stay where she is, but admits there will come a day when she won’t be able to make the climb.

 “I know it’s coming, but for now I’m just taking my time and I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until I can’t,” she said matter-of-factly.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Housing, Spinal Cord Association, House of Assembly.He The Telegram Canada Mortgage Housing

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Grand Falls-Windsor

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Recent comments

  • Debbie Wells
    April 05, 2014 - 14:00

    i know how she feels we have been waiting since 2007 for housing for my husband he is in a chair to. we were in a halway good place subzdize by housing, but the land lors sold the house and didn't want know body there so we were put in a shelter and had to find a place, the one we found is not wheelchair accible, and the landlord won't fix it for to be .