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May 29, 2019

Lived experience improves housing accessibility

“Making homes and communities accessible matters to everyone,” says Cathy Birch. “A disabled person, a mom with a stroller or a delivery guy with a large box – anyone can use a ramp.”

Cathy is the founder and chair of the Responsible Personal Accessibility in Toronto Housing (R-PATH) Committee. R-PATH is a resident-led group that works to identify and fix barriers to housing accessibility. “We are neighbours living in the Toronto Community Housing communities,” explains Cathy. “We are like-minded people focused on the fix, not the problem.”

Cathy is a multiple amputee and has a lot of lived experience. She knows how hard life can be without the right supports.

“I find it frustrating when I've got to go three blocks to find an accessible entrance. An able-bodied person only has to walk up to an entrance five feet away from where I'm sitting,” she says.

Cathy is transforming her lived experience into a tool to improve the quality of life of others living with physical challenges. Cathy and the R-PATH committee work with Toronto Community Housing to change the built environment.

“What looks good to an architect may not work for practical living,” says Cathy. “We can take them to the barrier and physically show them that it does not work.”

R-PATH’s holistic approach to housing design includes the entire lived environment. “You can completely transform someone’s apartment but that doesn’t matter if they can’t even get in the building. You have to go into these homes and community spaces and consider what needs to change so that anyone can function,” Cathy says.

“Toronto Community Housing has been incredibly supportive,” Cathy says. “Our input and information helps the executive team to make better decisions and spend monies more effectively. We want to help them be a leader in accessible housing.”

“Our close partnership with R-PATH has enabled us to make great strides in improving accessibility for tenants with disabilities,” said Sheila Penny, vice president of Facilities Management at Toronto Community Housing. “Together, we have developed accessibility standards that truly meet the needs of our tenants. We have put in place a robust program that ensures all tenants have access to accommodations for current and emerging needs.”

Education is a key part of R-PATH’s work. The committee educates others on the rights and needs of those who live with a physical challenge. They also advise and assist residents directly to get their needs met.

“A lot of people with disabilities don't understand that they're covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code,” says Cathy. “That they can't be discriminated against just because they use a wheelchair or use a walker. They have a right to be treated the same as anybody else.”

Re-designing a unit for accessibility enables residents to function safely in their community. One of Cathy’s biggest rewards is seeing residents’ reactions when they move back into their units.

“They are so happy and grateful that they are going to be able to stay at home that much longer,” she explains. “That’s why investing in accessible housing is so important. It allows people to age in place safely, and in comfort.”

Toronto Community Housing received partial funding from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, a National Housing Strategy initiative, for much needed repairs — including improved accessibility.