When Theresa Wills was 18 years old, she suffered a spinal cord injury tobogganing in Lake Louise, which left her paraplegic. The ambulance took her to Calgary, where she had surgery, did rehab and lived most of her adult life (she was born and raised in Manitoba). She met her husband, Danny, while both playing on the Alberta Junior Wheelchair Basketball team. They married in July 2013, and in September that year, Theresa moved to Danny’s Edmonton home.
Danny, who is able-bodied, built a ramp to his bungalow’s back patio doors. He built a ramp over the garage threshold, too, but the garage was detached, which made getting there in winter difficult for Theresa. Knowing they wanted children meant knowing the home, as it was, wouldn’t be a long-term fit, and major renovations would actually cost more than building new. So in May 2014, they moved into their custom-built infill home in the Ritchie area.
The stairs were first to go. Well, they didn’t go, but there are none outside the home, and the stairs inside are rarely used, thanks to the elevator from the basement to second storey. The initial build had no kitchen island, leaving a wide-open space, which at first might seem good, but ended up being inefficient. “For me in a wheelchair it was a lot of travelling — prepping food in the kitchen, bringing food back and forth to the table,” Wills says. “So we wanted something more convenient for our family, when we’re sitting down quickly and grabbing a bite, especially with little kids, that was right close to the fridge.” The finished product is like a bar but lower, with pull-out cutting boards and storage drawers with an eight-inch toe kick instead of the standard four. It’s pedestal style, which leaves legroom underneath, and is just far enough from the fridge for Wills to comfortably wheel in between.
Upstairs, the couple bought a king-size bed, with a custom frame built to wheelchair height that has storage underneath and at the foot for clothing, medical supplies and throw pillows. The en suite has a wide entrance with a sliding door, two sinks, a roll-in shower and lowered tub. It’s all designed to take less of a physical toll, and make Wills more independent and able to care for her two daughters, who are still small and eager enough to both fit on her loving lap.
The importance of barrier-free design is something Wills wishes everyone would consider when building because, whether it’s you or someone you know, mobility issues are inevitable, and there are simple things anyone can do, like having outside ramps instead of stairs. “And there’s another set of principles for making a home visitable,” she says, “like having one bathroom on the main level that has a turning radius of four feet for someone with a wheelchair or walker, or having a bedroom on the main floor.”
And the Wills’s home looks great, which is as important as having lower counters to ease shoulder strain. “We always think of the functional aspects, but there’s also a quality of life aspect,” Wills says. “It’s nice to have a nice home. We work hard. We want a nice home like anyone else. We don’t want it clinical, like we’re living in a hospital with medical equipment and supplies that I need as a paraplegic. So it’s nice to take pride in a beautiful home.”
Chris Schamber is a board member on Spinal Cord Injury Alberta and a committee member of the Safety Codes Council on the Barrier Free subcommittee. He started his business, Quad Designing Barrier Free Consulting (quaddesign.ca), over 10 years ago to help individuals, architects and municipalities make new buildings and homes universally accessible from the blueprint stage. He raises awareness to combat the “it’s never going to happen to me” mentality most able-bodied people understandably have, and to help make things easier and less expensive for everyone. He shared a few simple tips you can do to make your home more accessible.
Wide doorways — Standard doorways are 36 inches wide, which is still difficult for people with wheelchairs or walkers. Widening even just the entrance doors to 42 inches makes a huge difference, with the added bonus of making it easier to move appliances and furniture in and out.
Ramp ratio — If building a ramp, follow the 1:12 ratio (for every inch up, make one foot of ramp) as a minimum, to make it easier and safer for wheelchair use. The flatter, the better.
Showers without curbs — Unless they’re lowered, bathtubs are difficult and dangerous for anyone physically disabled. A walk-in shower (with grab bars) is easier for anyone to enter, and comes at no additional cost.
Install gooseneck spouts — Gooseneck sink spouts make it much easier for the physically disabled to wash their hands, since they don’t have reach all the way over the sink.
Remove carpets — While it is a style choice, consider wood, linoleum or tile for your home’s main floor to make it easier for someone to wheel on (rugs and carpets also hold dust, which can be difficult for people with respiratory problems). Or at least avoid overly thick rugs or carpets (shag isn’t coming back in style anyway).
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This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.