A flight of stairs. A bedroom doorway. An upper cabinet. For most of us these are just architectural features. For Sandy Watson, they’re barriers.
Sandy has lived with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a chronic, progressive disease that affects the central nervous system, for the past 26 years. A single mom of three grown children, Sandy’s daughter and older son live and work outside the province. Her youngest son, Josh, lives with her, and has never known a time when his mom didn’t have MS. There have been advancements in recent years for the treatment of the disease, but, as Sandy says, "I’ve had MS too long, and I’m too old to take advantage of the medications that are now available.”
In addition to Sandy’s progressive MS, she and her family have had to contend with several life-altering events, including the cancer diagnosis and subsequent death of her partner, and a house fire. In 2013, Sandy’s disease moved to the secondary phase. Her mobility limitations now forced her to rely on a wheelchair or scooter, and for this former Executive Assistant and hockey mom, long-term disability was the only option.
Sandy and Josh’s fourth floor apartment is over 30 years old. Ceiling leaks, unreliable temperature control, and the struggles of navigating an inaccessible building, are stressors that exacerbate Sandy’s symptoms, which can include muscle weakness, numbness, dizziness, fatigue, and memory loss. Daily activities like collecting the mail, or doing laundry become sizable tasks. Because Sandy’s wheelchair doesn’t fit through her bedroom or bathroom doors, she must leave her chair in the hallway, and only through a combination of shifting, and holding the walls and door frames, can she make the unsafe transition from chair to bed or bath.
While Sandy’s daily challenges are formidable, she emphasizes that, "The word, ‘can’t’ isn’t in my vocabulary. You just have to get on with it.” And she does. Cheerful and outgoing, Sandy is a volunteer for the Simcoe Muskoka Canadian MS Society, the Town of Midland’s Accessible Advisory Committee, and she administers several Facebook support groups for Canadians living with MS. Both Sandy and Josh are volunteers for the local MS chapter and participate in the annual Walk to raise funds and awareness for MS. Sandy and Josh are also Habitat for Humanity Ontario Gateway North’s newest volunteers. Sandy will be volunteering at the Midland ReStore, and Josh will be working on the build site, painting the interior walls for both units of the semi-detached at 808 Birchwood Drive.
The prospect of moving to an energy-efficient, universally accessible home is, "a new start for us,” says Josh. "It’ll be so great for Mom to be able to get out and enjoy the world more.”
Many of Sandy’s friends also have accessibility needs, which means that since moving to her apartment, she has never been able to host her friends. That’s all about to change. "I’ll be able to have friends over for dinner! Just the ability to connect socially – with friends and the community, in a safe environment – is life-changing,” says Sandy.
When asked for their response to the news that they’d been selected as a Habitat’s partner family for the Birchwood semi, an emotional Sandy replied, "There are no words.”
And that speaks volumes.