In the last federal election, a polling station was located at Bishop Doyle Hall at the corner of Hunter and Reid Streets. Across the road and two blocks away, is an assisted-living facility where many residents are confined to wheelchairs. Even though they lived just a 100 metres away, physically disabled residents of the building could not vote in that election unless they were driven to the polls… because while the polling station was fully accessible, the block it sat on was not.
On first glance her apartment looks like any other. Tidy and decorated with personal items, it has the appearance of any typical one-bedroom. She tells me there is a cat somewhere, and I see the bowls and other evidence, but her pet decides to wait out the interview in hiding.
She is happy here and has praise for the agency that placed her, and she shows me her kitchen with cutaway counters, an oven whose door opens sideways, and the low profile of the cupboards. “They did a good job on this place,” she says. “I am grateful to be here.”
Susan wasn’t always in a wheelchair, but complications following a kidney transplant have left her unable to walk, and so five years ago she moved to 443 Reid Street in Peterborough, the former St. Peter’s Elementary School, which was converted into an assisted-living facility about a decade ago.
It’s a good place to live, contends Susan, but its location is far from ideal.
Hugging the western side of the Reid/Rubidge corridor, and cut off from access to much of the city by crumbling or inaccessible sidewalks, the residents of 443 Reid Street live in a building that some have dubbed “The Island.”
For them, the basic pieces of a normal life—shopping, banking, going to events in the city—are largely unavailable unless they show great determination to journey outside of their residential neighbourhood. Good intentions surround the design and management of the building, but it may just be the right facility in the wrong place.
And the issues its residents face provoke deeper questions about how our society manages and accommodates difference, about how we often fail to see the most challenged among us.
The repurposing of the building did not begin with this intent. The owners, TVM Group, had wanted to put in 60 condos, but neighbourhood residents resisted, concerned with the site’s lack of parking. They convinced City Council that the proposal was shortsighted, and so a compromise was reached: the building would instead become a 48-unit assisted-living facility.
At the time it felt like a win all around—neighbours would not have to contend with heavy traffic, the owners finally got approval to renovate their building, and the City would help provide badly needed rental space to those who needed a purpose-built facility.
But after that deal was brokered, the neighbours, the City, and everyone else not directly related to the building never gave much thought to the place again.
I am speaking to Lori in the basement Common Room, in a section of the building that used to be a gymnasium. Little trace of the old school remains, save for the grey and blue terrazzo flooring throughout the place. Outside the Common Room there is a memorial wall to those residents who have passed away—a dozen names are commemorated there with pictures and obituaries.
When I mention it to Lori she chuckles and says the memorial was started shortly after the building opened but the idea was soon abandoned. Too many names to fit any wall, she says. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it couldn’t be sustained.
Lori was placed there by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), with whom she has been a client for two decades. She arrived in Peterborough in the 1990s, escaping an abusive marriage in southwestern Ontario with her two children. She once owned a home here, but suffers from fibromyalgia. and was unable to work full time. Eventually she lost her house and was homeless for a time.
“I wanted to go to Trent University when I first moved here,” she says. “That was my plan, but I couldn’t afford that and raise my children at the same time.”
With help from CHMA, she got off the street and they eventually found her a room at 443 Reid. She feels safe here, and is an active member of many local communities. And she speaks with pride about her son and his recent graduation from university.
I ask her about public misconceptions around people with disabilities, and she says: ”People who live here—their lives aren’t just in this building. They are volunteers, members of church groups, people with friends and family throughout the city. I don’t think people realize that.”
In the smoking area by the parking lot, I meet Lisa, consigned to a wheelchair yet determined to walk her grandchildren to school. Like many of the people here, she can speak with granular detail about the slightest heave or fracture on city sidewalks.
It’s not so bad in the summer, she says, but the winter sidewalks can be a real challenge, particularly since the safest side streets are always the last to be cleared. She has resorted to strapping a snow shovel to back of her chair, shoveling with one hand and steering with the other when snow gets too deep.
And travelling by electric wheelchair in the winter can have unfortunate consequences. Bottoming out on a pile of snow can short-circuit the chair’s battery, leaving a person abandoned with a useless 300-pound machine.
Susan takes me out to the street in front of the building. To get to Reid Street she exits the back of the building on a tight switchback ramp that leaves little room for error, and that in the winter is often blocked by snow after the parking lot gets plowed. Susan proceeds to the north of the building but has to continue into a neighbouring parking lot, as the building’s driveway is riddled with potholes and fissures.
“These chairs are not tanks,” says Susan. They can easily tip over when navigating a dip or the lip of a curb, and in the wrong conditions such an incident could be life-threatening.
We get to the corner of Murray and Reid, where she shows me the cutaways built into the sidewalk. They are set back from the intersection, so cars accelerating south on Reid and turning quickly onto Murray often don’t notice the chairs crossing just beyond the corner.
Everyone has stories of collisions with vehicles, involving themselves or someone they know at the building. Anyone who travels in Peterborough by wheelchair knows the risk they take. The corner of Reid and Murray, in the shadow of the building itself, is one such danger area, but it is also the only way to access the rail trail along Jackson Creek, and from there to continue downtown.
The alternative is to proceed south from the building. We exit the parking lot and scoot across Brock Street to the driveway of the Cathedral Court apartments. There is no other sidewalk cutaway on the building’s south side. Once back onto Reid, we continue south to the lights by St. Peter-in-Chains Cathedral. Those lights are the only ones on the entire Reid/Rubidge corridor between Charlotte and McDonnell.
On the west side, there is a sidewalk cutaway, but no corresponding access on the east side. So, if one does cross at the light, they are stuck in the middle of Reid Street.
Funny thing is, the sidewalk does slope down on the east side, but it is too sheer an incline to be of any use. It is entirely possible that it was designed to be wheelchair-accessible, but no one ever followed up to see if it actually worked.
“You would think that maybe the City would actually consult with the disabled before they made their plans,” says Sharon, “but they never ask for our input.”
We are in her third-floor apartment, a welcoming place stuffed with DVDs, VHS tapes, colouring books, and several albums of photographs and documents related to the building. She has been here since the first few months it opened and is a rich resource for the building’s history.
We talk about the notion of independent living—a movement started in the 1970s that seeks to let people with disabilities live an independent life yet also have the supports they need. Like the majority of the building’s residents, Sharon is a client of Kawartha Participation Projects, a non-profit that sublets many of the units and provides 24-hour on-site assistance.
Sharon can move around with a walker, but she has balance issues and is always in danger of falling. She wears an emergency alert button around her neck and needs assistance for some day-to-day tasks, but otherwise she gets to live her life on her own terms. She shows me her kitchen and where she does her Christmas baking, and she relishes not having to live according to an institutional schedule.
“If I feel like watching a movie at midnight, then I can do it,” she says with a laugh.
But once she leaves the building, she faces a unique kind of discrimination. “I have a hidden disability,” she says, “so some people think I am faking it, that I am not in need of these supports.” Born with four kidneys, she underwent multiple surgeries throughout her life, and now lives with one half of a remaining kidney. She is often dizzy and fatigued, sometimes requiring substantial time to recover.
She had to fight for decades for recognition of her disability, and even today has had run-ins with city support workers who dismiss her because they cannot see her condition. “It’s hard,” she says, “not being believed, not being listened to.”
In David’s apartment on the second floor, I admire his shelf of hockey memorabilia, including a 1998 championship trophy from the Canadian Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association. A native of Toronto, David is afflicted with cerebral palsy. He moved to Peterborough with his mother when she got too old to take care of him—she relocated to a nursing home, David to 443 Reid.
He needs help with many of his daily routines, but he is also an eager adventurer around the city. He likes that there is a bus stop in front of the building, and he explores Peterborough along city transit routes. Lansdowne Place is one of his favourite destinations, as are the music performances in Del Crary Park. He has nothing but praise for the drivers, who all greet him as a friend and make sure he has a place to sit.
Yet, when returning from an outing, David does not get off the bus until it has looped around the full circuit and stopped again in front of his home, as it is far too dangerous for him to exit on Rubidge. The unbroken traffic corridor and decaying sidewalks aren’t worth the risk, so he takes the long way home.
David, like so many others in his building, has found a way to adapt to his circumstances. No one I met at 443 Reid was looking for sympathy. Life has presented them with challenges, but they have still built their own community and strive to remain actively engaged with the rest of their city.
But they are largely cut off, marooned on an island of concrete, where venturing beyond its grounds necessitates a great deal of preparation and a certain measure of personal risk.
There is frustration with their situation, since many solutions are not difficult to identify, nor expensive to implement. It is frustrating when you have the answer and no one will listen to you.
And that frustration is evidence of a collective failure. It is the very real consequence of a city and its residents who, despite their best intentions, have been averting their gaze for eight long years.
Photos and illustrations by B Mroz.