Teri Lee Walters has been in a wheelchair since she was 13, paralyzed from the waist down. She works one day a week as a patient aid and relies on disability pension for the rest of her income.
Since her last vehicle gave out two years ago, Walters has been able to get around using adapted transit.
But now Walters’s mother, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and arthritis, has become more seriously ill.
“This summer she had pneumonia but didn’t really fully recover. She kept getting a little worse. We eventually found out that she’s in heart failure,” Walters told CBC in an interview in her small but tidy apartment in NDG this week.
Walters’s mother now needs a lot more help and has a lot more medical appointments.
“She lives in Châteauguay. I’m here in Montreal and to get back and forth and see her and to take care of her, I need a vehicle,” Walters said.
“I can’t be there in an emergency if she needs me. And right now she can barely make it down the hallway to go to the washroom. So I’m there to cook, clean, do everything I can,” she said.
“But I have my own life, and my own apartment to take care of. So I’m in desperate need of a way to get back and forth,” she said.
The current labour shortage in Quebec is having a spinoff effect that means Walters may have to wait up to a year before she can get a vehicle properly adapted for her needs.
“That doesn’t do me any good right now,” Walters said.
“My mom took very good care of me when I became paralyzed at 13. I want to take care of her now and give her the best quality of life that I can,” she said.
Delays for government program that covers cost
Quebec’s automobile insurance board, known by its French acronym the SAAQ, has a program that pays to adapt vehicles for people such as Walters.
In most cases, the SAAQ covers the entire cost.
People who want to have a vehicle converted must first get an evaluation report from an occupational therapist to determine what type of adaptation they need.
Walters figures she’ll need a vehicle with a lowered floor and electric ramp — so that she can get her wheelchair inside — and seats that pivot. She’ll also need hand controls for braking and accelerating.
In addition to the evaluation from the occupational therapist, the SAAQ requires two estimates from accredited companies that can do the work to adapt the vehicle.
The documents are then submitted to the SAAQ and, if it approves the request, the work can proceed. Sometimes a final inspection is required once the work is complete.
Walters doesn’t even own a vehicle right now and purchasing one on her limited income will be a challenge.
But it’s not the money she’s most worried about.
It’s the delay in getting the conversion done, due mostly to the labour shortage.
Shortage of occupational therapists
Steven Laperrière, general manager of the Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec, (RAPLIQ), a group that advocates for people with disabilites, told CBC in an interview that before the pandemic, the SAAQ program was working well, and that it might take only a month or two to get a vehicle adapted.
But, he said, that’s changed.
“The labour shortage is a real thing everywhere and most important is that there’s a shortage of occupational therapists,” Laperrière said.
Early in the pandemic, occupational therapists were among health-care professionals called on to help with COVID testing and vaccination. At the same time, with more people working and spending time at home, the demand for occupational therapy increased dramatically.
Laperrière said now it can take up to six months to get an appointment with an occupational therapist in the public system, and while it’s faster to pay for a private consultation, there are delays there as well.
That means the first step of the vehicle adaptation process is delayed.
Laperrière said that’s not all.
“There’s also a shortage of people that do the adaptation of vehicles, so it takes longer. And if you need specific parts and pieces, there’s a labour shortage there also, which makes for longer delays,” he said.
“So you’re kind of stuck with it for now, and we can only hope that in the near future, you know, things will get better,” he said.
Anne Marie Dussault Turcotte, a spokesperson for the SAAQ, told CBC in an interview there’s not much they can do about the shortage of occupational therapists and other professionals.
“Unfortunately, it’s not us who’s responsible for managing this,” Dussault Turcotte said.
“But as soon as we receive the necessary documentation, we undertake to quickly render a decision. That’s a priority for us,” she said.
Alternatives not viable
Laperrière said Walters could rent an adapted vehicle as a short-term solution.
Walters said she looked into that, and was given a quote of $3,000 for a 30-day rental — well beyond her budget.
“For now, the only solution we have is to recommend adapted transit,” Dussault Turcotte said.
Walters says that for an adapted transit trip off the island of Montreal, she has to reserve at least five days in advance, something not practical with her mother’s declining health.
For the moment Walters is scrambling to cobble together solutions so her mother can make important medical appointments.
On the day CBC interviewed her, Walters paid $90 for a taxi to take her mother from Châteauguay to an appointment at Charles-Lemoyne Hospital in Longueuil, and she was unable to accompany her. She’s also asking friends, family and volunteers for rides.
“It’s just day by day, trying to piecemeal together what I need, and asking people for help as much as I can,” Walters said.
“We’ve always been very independent, so asking for help is difficult,” she said.
Beyond caring for her mother, Walters is an active person who wants to be involved in the community, which isn’t always easy.
“There’s this constant stress on you because you’re always worried about if this goes wrong, then I’m stuck. There’s no being able to be spontaneous,” she said.
Walters said she understands there are no easy solutions to the delays in adapting vehicles, but she’s frustrated.
“It’s a tricky problem. Everything that you get when you have a disability, whether it be adaptation to a house or a vehicle or anything, there’s a lot of red tape, a lot of waiting time,” she said.
“Meanwhile people are suffering. They’re not getting what they need,” she said.
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