Woman has keen understanding of needs of those with disabilities
Tuesday December 3, 2002
Nineteen years ago, Sharron Garrah's job was to help people with physical disabilities live independently in their homes.
Today, the 43-year-old Waterloo woman uses the services she once provided as an employee of the Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region.
Garrah, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, is one of 44 people in the region who live full and independent lives thanks to a 24-hour attendant-care program provided by the Independent Living Centre.
"Independent living is like living outside the box and breaking the mould," Garrah said in an interview.
Today is the United Nations-declared International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which marks the start of a year-long campaign to promote independent living and self-direction for people living with disabilities.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Independent Living Centre of Waterloo Region -- the first such centre in Canada and the only one in the country that provides 24-hour attendant services for disabled people in their homes.
Nineteen years ago, Garrah had everything going for her.
She was 24, had just graduated from the University of Waterloo and was planning her fall wedding.
Then Garrah was diagnosed with MS.
Her older sister, who had been diagnosed earlier with MS, told Garrah to get on with her life -- advice Garrah took to heart and has followed faithfully.
Initially, the symptoms of the disease were mild enough to allow her to do her job of caring for people with disabilities in their homes. Then it progressed to the point where she had to use a cane, then a scooter and now a wheelchair.
Working with disabled people helped her cope with her own situation.
"It made me understand that life wasn't over," she said. "I have been blessed with having very inspirational people cross my path."
Garrah lives a full and rich life thanks to the services of the Independent Living Centre, of which she is board president. She travels, goes shopping and swimming and does volunteer work. She even went hang-gliding last summer.
Three times a day an attendant comes to her apartment: in the morning to help her get out of bed and bathe and dress her, in the afternoon to make her meals, and in the evening to get her ready for bed. Their assistance is just a phone call away, she said.
"When everything is working well and you have someone who understands your needs, I almost forget I have a disability because it just happens, and before I know it, I am up and dressed and ready to go for the day."
The daily cost to provide this service is $137, compared with about $300 a day if Garrah lived in a chronic-care facility like Grand River Hospital's Freeport Health Centre, a place she feared she would end up in.
The Ontario Ministry of Health gives the Independent Living Centre $4.25 million a year to provide attendant care to about 200 people, of which 44 live in one of the centre's four supportive housing projects. Another 160 people, who live with family members, receive care in their own homes.
The program allows families to stay together.
There is a waiting list of three to five years for the attendant-care housing units, said Dianne Boston-Nyp, spokeswoman for the Kitchener-based Independent Living Centre.
Garrah's advice to other people with disabilities is to take control of their lives and not let other people tell them what their needs are.
"With the independent-living approach, it is like me saying I know what I need . . . and then having people work with me to make things happen, instead of a medical approach of people coming in and telling you what to do," she said.
"It lets people live their lives the way they want to live it."
© The Record 2002