Life becomes harder for Christchurch disabled

MORE OBSTACLES: New Zealand Spinal Trust worker Luke Kenmare attempts to navigate his way around damaged footpaths.
MORE OBSTACLES: New Zealand Spinal Trust worker Luke Kenmare attempts to navigate his way around damaged footpaths.

Growing isolation, a lack of suitable accommodation and difficulty just getting around. Those with physical disabilities face an array of challenges in a post-earthquake Christchurch.

Life for incomplete tetraplegic Tracy Hinman had been OK after Christchurch's first major earthquake in 2010.

The February 2011 earthquake, on the other hand, left her feeling isolated, stressed and financially strained.

The 36-year-old was paralysed following a severe case of swine flu in 2009.

She recalled visiting the doctor on a Sunday regarding her asthma condition and being told everything was fine.

The next day she was admitted to Christchurch Hospital, where she remained for the next eight months.

"I don't remember much from the first two-and-a-half months," she said.

"I was in a drug-induced coma."

Nerve damage caused by an infection left her with minimal feeling in her left arm and no feeling in either foot.

She could now move small distances with the help of crutches, but needed a wheelchair for longer journeys.

However, the February 2011 quake took away much of the independence she had managed to get back, with the footpaths and roads surrounding her Avondale house becoming a minefield.

The paths disappeared under mounds of silt or were riddled with cracks and holes.

"People complain about the roads - yes they're bad, [but] so are the footpaths.

"You're told never to go on the road, but sometimes I had no choice. With the roadworks and all that, where could you go? It just wasn't safe."

She stopped using her wheelchair as much because of constant punctures and found herself spending more time at home.

"It just took away my independence."

She was able to buy a car later in the year, which was modified so she could drive it, but she would still only go to shops that she felt safe in.

"I just tend to go to local shops. I avoid malls unless it's the shop closest to the exit. If there was a quake everyone would be running and I would have to stop, because I've got no balance. I'd end up on the ground."

Her red-zoned house had also become a danger, with slippery liquefaction silt on the driveway and a jammed front door.

She was unable to stay there for the first three weeks after the February 2011 quake because she had no power, water or sewerage.

Using a portaloo was not an option because of her disability and the chemical toilet she had been given was too low to be practical.

Workers at one of the welfare centres set up after the disaster had "no idea what I needed", she said.

"They told me I should go stay in hospital . . . [but] the hospital had no beds."

Instead, she used the New Zealand Spinal Trust's Connecting People programme to find someone with a spare room.

The group's Facebook page was a lifesaver for Christchurch people with disabilities after the quake, she said.

Hinman moved across the city to Hoon Hay in February and said her new home and neighbourhood was "bliss" compared to living in the east.

"I'm out. I don't want to go back to that side of town." ❏ ❏ ❏ ❏ Twenty-nine-year-old Luke Kenmare said accessibility around Christchurch was the "key" issue for those with physical disabilities.

"It's just huge."

Kenmare was disabled after a cyst developed in his spinal cord when he was seven and he had needed a wheelchair since.

His St Martin's home escaped serious damage in the city's quakes, but his local supermarket, the St Martin's New World, was destroyed.

He was able to drive, meaning he could still do his own shopping, but he had heard of many other disabled people becoming much more isolated since the quakes.

"Isolation is a big one, even if the person might use taxis and stuff like that, the jarring from the roads for the higher-level guys that have pain issues [means] a 10-minute ride can be horrible . . . so they just stay at home."

Eighteen months on from the February quake, Kenmare thought life in the city was "just floating".

"Everything's in limbo."

Roads and footpaths across the city still needed to be repaired, homes were still damaged, and although the temporary shops and bars were great, some only had portaloo toilets available, which were impossible for someone using a wheelchair to go into.

"I got told off by a bouncer one day for pissing behind him, but what else was I meant to do."

The facility he missed the most was Parafed Canterbury's gym, which had been based at Burwood Hospital.

The gym's equipment had been accessible for those using wheelchairs and membership had cost only $40 a year.

The facility closed in May after the building was found to be earthquake-prone and the organisation had been unable to reopen the gym elsewhere.

A "normal" gym could cost hundreds each year and much of the equipment could not be accessed from a wheelchair, he said. ❏ ❏ ❏ ❏ Tetraplegic Pat Edmonds, who was paralysed after breaking his neck in a diving accident, moved to Christchurch in April 2010 "just in time" for the city's earthquakes.

"I was just following my heart at the time," he said, after he and fiance Deb Mitchell met at a wheelchair rugby tournament in Palmerston North.

Both now work for the New Zealand Spinal Trust's Connecting People programme.

Edmonds also worked for the Connecting People Programme now and the couple knew those with physical disabilities were facing a range of problems since the quakes.

The group contacted everyone on its database straight after the February disaster and found many had been trying to cope on their own because their carers had to deal with their own quake-related issues.

Mitchell recalled the story of one man who got stuck in his electric bed for hours because the power had been cut and his carer had been unable to come to his house.

Eighteen months on, isolation had become the big issue, as many with disabilities felt it was easier to just "stay at home" rather than face a journey across the broken city.

"We found with Connecting People, a lot of members are a lot more isolated than they used to be. It's affecting their mental health, especially those who just relied on their chairs to get about."

Suitable accommodation was also much harder to come by. Mitchell and Edmonds were lucky to find a new house in Kaiapoi after their Selwyn St home was damaged, but others were struggling to find accessible accommodation.

Those with physical disabilities often needed ramps to get into a house, and suitable toilets and showers.

Away from home, something as simple as going to the toilet had become more of an issue than it was before the quakes.

Many disabled people would have to plan their days around when they might need to use a toilet and where they could find one they could actually get into, Mitchell said.

Immediately after the February 2011 quake, Burwood Hospital had set-up portaloos, but they had been on a trailer that people had to climb on to via steps - impossible for those in wheelchairs to access.

The couple hoped the new Christchurch would be more disability-friendly.

"The biggest issue I have with Christchurch, the old Christchurch - if you were in a chair, a mobility scooter, anything, you always had to get to the back of the shop to get in and battle your way to the front of the shop to get the thing you wanted to buy," Edmonds said.

"If everybody could go through the front door, [it] would be great."

Mitchell was excited the city had a "clean slate" to get things right.

She had been to various forums regarding the rebuild and found disability groups were feeling "really listened to".

"I think it's going to be the best city in the world for disabilities."

The Press