A Vancouver Island wheelchair user who has spent years asking her strata for changes to make it possible to go to and from her condo safely and without help from friends has won $35,000 in damages and an order for action on her complaints.
Last week, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ordered the owners at the Eagle Point Bayview complex in Nanaimo to begin the process of making their building wheelchair accessible, and to pay a penalty to 76-year-old Ada Jacobsen for injury to her dignity, feelings and self‐respect.
“She has essentially been a prisoner in her own home … Each time Ms. Jacobsen wants to go somewhere, she has to plan ahead with one of her friends so they can assist her,” tribunal member Grace Chen wrote in a Sept. 11 decision.
“No one should have to spend their golden years fighting with their strata to get their accommodation requests addressed.”
Chen said the strata didn’t make any serious attempts to deal with Jacobsen’s concerns about accessibility until she filed her human rights complaint.
Ahead of hearings on the complaint, one strata council member told another that Jacobsen was a “loser” who was just going to cost the owners more money, the tribunal found.
That council member, Melissa Austin, testified before the tribunal and argued that only three people in the 32-unit building have mobility issues — a point of view that Chen described as problematic.
“It suggests accommodation should be assessed against the number of people who need accommodation. The duty to accommodate is not focused on what is best for the majority,” Chen wrote.
No way in or out without help from friends
According to the decision, Jacobsen did not have mobility problems when she moved into the building in 2003, but her health has gradually declined and she was using a wheelchair by 2016.
The decision highlights how simple design decisions in a residential building can make it nearly impossible for people with disabilities to go about their daily lives.
Standing in the hall between the elevator and Jacobsen’s unit on the second floor are three steps, which she can only navigate with the help of friends who boost her out of the wheelchair and support her as she slowly walks up and down.
“This is required every time Ms. Jacobsen comes and goes from her unit,” Chen wrote.
At the entrance to the building, a platform slopes down from the front door to the parking lot, but it’s too steep for Jacobsen to go up on her own or to safely coast down. Jacobsen has lost control before and slammed into a car, scraping her leg, and she worries about tipping out of her chair, according to the decision.
The pathway to a community centre where the strata holds its meetings is also too steep for her to use safely.
The tribunal heard that Jacobsen first began requesting accessibility improvements in 2014, when she was not yet using a wheelchair but was having difficulty walking. Jacobsen wrote an email in 2017 laying out all of her accessibility concerns, and filed her human rights complaint soon after.
Since then, the strata has taken some measures, including installing an automatic front door button and railings beside the hallway steps, giving Jacobsen an accessible parking spot and paying for an accessibility assessment by the Rick Hansen Foundation.
But the more fundamental problems with the hallway steps and the steep pathways remain, while the strata argues it has made all reasonable accommodations.
“The strata has not shown that it satisfied its duty to accommodate Ms. Jacobsen to the point of undue hardship,” she wrote.
The tribunal ordered the strata to hire experts and seek approval for solutions to the hallway stairs, the front entrance and the path to the community centre.