What Accessibility Means to You

L’Arche Cape Breton: Where gardens, friendships, and communities grow

By Suzanne Rent

Coralee MacDougall loves to work in the garden at L’Arche Cape Breton, an organization and a community in Iron Mines and Orangedale for people with disabilities. In the garden, MacDougall, who uses a wheelchair, plants and harvests crops like tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and lettuce. She’s learned new skills like transplanting seedlings, weeding, cleaning and packing the harvest for sale, and even watering plants, "without killing them!” she says. But for MacDougall, the garden here is something more.

"I love getting to spend time with my friends and learning how to do things,” she says.

L’Arche Cape Breton has been running the garden here for about a decade. It is now a 1/4 acre, diverse-vegetable garden and the gardeners with disabilities are vital in its growth - raising, processing, and selling its produce. L’Arche also features The Old Hen Café, a used-clothing store called The Ark, and an arts-and-craft studio, Angel’s Loft.


Marcel Visser is an assistant with the garden program. He says several years ago the Eyking family provided them with a greenhouse, which allowed them to increase their ability to grow heat-loving crops like tomatoes and grapes and make the garden more accessible. “We can grow the tomato vines vertically, which makes harvest more accessible to wheelchair users,” he says. “We can also use the greenhouse to raise salad crops right through the winter.”

The garden here has other crops like carrots, onions, cucumbers, and zucchini. Visser says most of the produce is distributed to the six houses that make up L’Arche where members live. But they also sell produce to the wider community, including at last year’s inaugural L’Arche Cape Breton Farmers’ Market.

“We run it out of our own Gathering Place and it provides the opportunity to build relationships with our neighbours and it shows them that people with disabilities can grow delicious, high-quality vegetables,” Visser says. “We are serious about growing top-quality, organic produce, and do our best to follow the best farming practices in order to maximize yields. The proceeds we receive from selling our produce is an important addition to L’Arche Cape Breton’s fundraising efforts, and we want to show the world that people with disabilities can contribute to real economic activity.”

The garden keeps growing and becoming more accessible for its gardeners. Two years ago, L’Arche received a grant to build accessible garden beds. That meant they could have raised gardens beds to a height of two feet, so that gardeners in wheelchairs could garden, too.

“Now more people can participate more fully in the planting, the weeding and the harvesting,” Visser says. “We are still learning whether these beds are a good design. We are always trying to improve and our next garden project will build on what we’ve learned.”

Buddy Payne is 55 and has lived at L’Arche for 34 years. He uses a wheelchair, too. Payne helps with filling pots with potting soil for vegetable and flower transplants, watering, hoeing garden beds, planting seeds, in particular large ones like beans and peas as they are easier to handle with his limited dexterity, shelling beans to collect and save the dry beans, harvesting, washing, packing, and selling vegetables. Payne is largely non-verbal but shared with Visser what he loves about working in the garden. Visser says Payne seems to love working in the garden in general, but he really shines when he does a repetitive task like shelling a bin of beans or filling a lot of pots with soil.

“It gives him the chance to really understand the task and figure out how he can best accomplish it, in terms of what tools to use, how to position his wheelchair and so forth,” Visser says. “Also, Buddy loves being with a group of people and the garden program provides that.”

Payne also learned the important skill of how to identify when tomatoes are ripe and best for harvest.

“This was a huge discovery of Buddy’s ability, that even though he had an intellectual disability and few would have expected he could do this, once he was exposed to the work of harvesting tomatoes enough times, and most importantly once he was given the chance to choose tomatoes for harvest, he very quickly understood what we were looking for,” Visser says.

Gary MacDonald, another member at L’Arche, works in the garden, too. His story was featured in this video filmed in the spring of 2019.

Click to view video, opens a new window

 MacDonald was a big help in building that garden, including cutting the wood for the garden beds.

Visser says the garden is a learning opportunity for the wider community, too.

“I think that for people in the wider community there can still be a lot of mystery around people with disabilities—what they're like, what their hopes and dreams are, how they live their day to day lives--and when we go outside to work in our garden it makes them more visible and it shows that they’re just normal people,” Visser says. “For all those people driving by our property, they see Buddy, Gary, and Coralee outside, working hard every day, living very normal lives even though they use wheelchairs. And I think and hope that over time, even in these small ways the perception of people with disabilities can change and improve. And when we have our farmers market and our neighbours can come and buy our vegetables, they learn first hand that people with disabilities can be great gardeners who grow delicious food.”

Visser says they are now looking for more ergonomic tools that work for each person’s particular ability.

“We find that lightweight tools with telescoping handles can be good, but we buy some new tools each year just to see what might work better,” he says. “It’s always evolving. And we hope to begin making a few of our own custom tools to further improve accessibility. This is exciting work for us and it’s done with constant input from our gardeners with disabilities.”

The garden is more than growing vegetables grow. Visser says every member brings a unique skill and ability to the garden. How everyone can contribute is constantly evolving, for example, how to position someone in a wheelchair just right so they can work on a task in a better way. Members also learn skills like conflict resolution, communication, forgiveness, and celebration. The members and staff are growing something bigger and sustainable.

“And we find that when we prioritize relationships, it makes us all better gardeners. It makes us into gardeners who aren't always rushing around trying to get everything done,” Visser says. “We become gardeners who move slowly and thoughtfully through the garden, choosing our jobs deliberately and doing them well, enjoying the time we get to spend with our friends. This doesn’t mean we don’t work hard! But we work a little differently than most market gardens. 

“And in L'Arche, at the end of the day, becoming friends is our number one goal and growing vegetables comes second. People before plants.”

Vicky Levack's Story


Hi, my name is Victoria Levack. I have, at the time of watching this, just turned 30 years old today. I have cerebral palsy. I live in Halifax. Unfortunately, I live in a nursing home because our government says that it cannot provide the care I need anywhere else, so that makes it very hard for me to live in the community, although I do the best I can. I am currently on four or five different boards, so trust me, I am very busy.

One of the main things I like about living in Halifax is that everybody seems to be kind, and they’re willing to help. For example, if a door’s shut, they’ll open it for you, because Nova Scotians are good like that. However, they shouldn’t have to. I would really like to live in a community where literal doors are not closed to me, at the very least. When the community does this, it says to me that “You don’t belong here, we don’t like you here.” And I know that’s not what they mean. I know if I said that to individual shop owners, they would say “Of course not, that’s horrible!” But when you don’t provide the level of access that I need, that is what you are saying without saying it.

My dream is that by 2030, I can walk through any door, so to speak, that I desire. I can shop anywhere without being stared at, because trust me, I still get stared at quite often. It’s like they’re thinking, “What is she doing outside? Is she safe?” and I find that very insulting. I get a lot of people telling me how brave I am for going out in public on my own. Please don’t do that. There’s nothing brave about disabled people living their lives. We’re just trying to do what you all do, we just do it a little differently.

So, my ask for the next year is this: if you or anyone you love has the thought that people with disabilities are different from you, no matter what you believe that difference to be, we’re not. On the basic level we might be doing things differently, but on a basic level we are all human, and we all want the same things. We want to be accepted. We want to be loved both by friends and romantically. I think that’s something people forget, that disabled people do want romantic/sexual lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that and we shouldn’t shelter them from that. People with disabilities are people first, and I think we all need to accept that and move on with our lives.

The Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities has been doing this work for approximately 40 years, and as grateful as I am to be working with them as their chair, and as great as I think we’re doing, I hope that one day this board is not needed, because all of the things we’re fighting for will be in, of course, and we will no longer have to fight. My dream is that if someone wants to live in a nursing home, it is their choice and they are not forced. Because the only other choice I had was to live with my folks in a small town, and that would not have provided me with a future.

So, I ask, please make my job, and the job of the various boards I sit on, obsolete so we can all be Nova Scotians, equal, together. Thank you very much.

Julianne Acker-Verney: Asking the right questions, getting the best answers to shape public policy for women with disabilities

By Suzanne Rent

Julianne Acker-Verney has been thinking a lot about women with disabilities during this pandemic, how their lives are affected, and how better policies could help them. But Acker-Verney has been thinking about these issues for a long time. Acker-Verney, 56, has been visually impaired since birth. After working as an insurance broker in her 20s, she went back to university at 30. “That’s when I really got into social justice issues,” she says. Those issues included food security, poverty, and more, all of which she researched using a cross-disability focus.

Then she started thinking about women with disabilities in general and how their needs and lives are made better– or worse—by policy. She worked as a policy analyst at Feed Nova Scotia and it was there she started looking at policy through a gender and disability lens, too, particularly when it came to food insecurity and poverty.

Acker-Verney started working on her graduate program in 2000, “But no one was talking about disability but me,” she remembers.  She left that program after coming to the conclusion that it was, “the wrong thing at the wrong time”. She began the same degree again in 2014, now a combined program in women and gender studies with Saint Mary’s University and Mount Saint Vincent University, thinking about research from the perspective of diverse women with disabilities.

Acker-Verney says the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed all sorts of potential issues for women with disabilities she’d like to see examined closely and addressed with good policies, too. There’s the issue of home care, or lack of it right now, as many women with disabilities lose access to home care or are lacking in appropriate home care as services are scaled back. That may be putting some women with disabilities at increased risk for violence or result in other health- or quality of life-related issues.

But there are other ways in which women with disabilities are affected by this pandemic. There are disruptions in income and even errands like getting groceries pose challenges for women. “There are all kinds of things that play into how women with disabilities, depending on their situation, experience this pandemic,” Acker-Verney says. “And what can be done so they come out of this pandemic in at least as good a position as they were at the outset of it.”


Women with disabilities aren’t all alike and they don’t all experience life the same way. There are other factors, including race, homophobia, that determine how a woman with a disability experiences this pandemic and life in general, and that should therefore be taken into account when policy is created and evaluated. “Traditionally, we don’t think about breaking a lot of it down when we think of policy analysis,” Acker-Verney says. “We don’t think of women with disabilities in relation to everything else, like women with disabilities who are racialized. those finer details change each woman’s experiences. It’s common for us to hear that a higher tide raises all boats, but that’s just not true.”

The usefulness of policies or interventions created around and for women with disabilities really depends on whether they have been informed by the voices of diverse women with disabilities. Acker-Verney says women with disabilities need to be the ones being asked the questions. Having women with disabilities ask the questions is important because their lived experiences will be different, including issues around transportation, income, where they live, whether they are racialized, and more.

“If the questions are good, the answers will be better,” Acker-Verney says. “If the questions aren’t good, the answers won’t be answers at all.”

She says participatory research is important to her.  “I want people to feel the value of their energy and their expertise,” she says. “I want them to see their experiences reflected in research results and I want those results to make a difference. I feel that responsibility strongly...”

Acker-Verney is now wrapping up work on her thesis. She says she feels pulled to do a doctorate next. But she says this pandemic is a huge experience in itself. “There will be a lot to learn,” she says. “And I hope diverse women with disabilities are supported to inform the questions that will, in turn, result in public policy that supports their well-being in particular.” 

Halifax’s Bike Mayor Jillian Banfield wants more people of all abilities to get out and ride

By Suzanne Rent

Jillian Banfield was diagnosed with arthritis when she was 14 months old and that often affected what she could do when she was a kid. But Banfield says growing up in the 1990s no one really talked about disability.

“Looking back, I was fairly disabled as a child, but never labelled as such,” she says. “I was always trying to do what everyone else did instead of having accommodations and inclusive approach.” She missed school and extracurricular activities because of physiotherapy and other medical appointments because of her arthritis.

“I was the kid in school with splints on, not able to do gym class, and I dreaded recess,” Banfield recalls.

She did learn how to ride a bike, although it took her a bit longer than other kids. She started on a bike with training wheels. But her parents weren’t into cycling, so she eventually gave it up by the time she went to high school in Bridgewater.

Banfield, who is a research project coordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, rediscovered cycling when she was in graduate school studying psychology. She wanted a better way to get to her office and school rather than

walking or taking the bus. She says her arthritis was making walking more difficult over time, but cycling was easier. She was also passionate about the environment and sustainable transportation. So, she got a bike.

But that got sidelined again, when she had surgery on her foot. But her time off the bike was short and she got the itch to ride again. “Once I got out, it was a new phase of my life with my bike as a mobility aid,” Banfield says.

Banfield rides a standard two-wheel bike that has no accommodations for her disability. She now rides it year-round and has studded tires for cycling in winter weather. She rides in any weather, but admits she’s not a fan of the wind.

From 2014 to 2017, Banfield served on the board of the Halifax Cycling Coalition. She also served on HRM’s accessibility advisory committee and its active transportation advisory committee. The terms for both of those committees ended in the fall of 2019 and she was looking for something new to do. It was through the Coalition that she learned about the Bike Mayor and Leaders Network. The Coalition wanted to nominate her for the role in Halifax. There are more than 100 Bike Mayors across the world, including in India and across North America and Europe. Each mayor works on cycling issues in their own city and local networks, including those issues around pollution, road deaths, and social barriers. Banfield wrote a two-year plan that focuses on a few issues for cycling accessibility in Halifax. Banfield says accessibility and mobility is not talked about much here and she wants to see more people out on bikes, including those with differing abilities to seniors. “Cycling is an opportunity to improve mobility for many more people than we realize,” she says.

Banfield says one issue in Halifax is that the current bike lanes are too narrow and don’t safely accommodate other kinds of bicycles, for example, larger tricycles. “It’s important to talk about it because there are different ways to design infrastructure and how people on bicycles can use it in different ways,” she says.

The COVID-19 crisis has more people talking about accessibility in their own cities as we look for new ways to get out again. Certainly, in Halifax, there’s been a push to open more streets for “people walking and rolling,” as Banfield says.

Banfield says she always tries to offer her knowledge to those interested in cycling in the city. She knows what local bike shops are most helpful for those cyclists needing accommodations on their bikes. Places like the Oval on the Halifax Common, when there’s no restrictions around COVID-19 at least, offer a safe space and bicycles to try out cycling for beginners. And programs like Try a Ride give people a chance to try cycling for the first time. But Banfield says once people get on a bike and ride for the first time, they’re often hooked. “The proof is in the pudding,” Banfield says. “Once you feel the wind and freedom of movement, it’s hard to imagine not feeling that again.”

Learn more about Jillian and her work, at this link, opens a new window.

To learn more about the Bike Mayor Program, click here, opens a new window.

Not Without Us: Hearing and sharing the stories of women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence

By Suzanne Rent

One year ago, the Not Without Us project got underway. A partnership between Easter Seals Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities, the Not Without Us project set out to hear the stories of women with disabilities who experienced domestic violence, along with the voices of the staff at organizations that serve these women. This project is the first of its kind in Nova Scotia. In May 2019 Joanne Bernard, president and CEO of Easter Seals Nova Scotia and Sherry Costa, provincial coordinator with the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities, hired me to work as the project coordinator for Not Without Us. I wanted to share some insight into what we learned over the last year.

The Not Without Us Project is one of several projects funded under the Standing Together initiative at the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Standing Together is a provincial action plan that is working with community, experts, and organizations to address the issue of domestic violence in Nova Scotia. You can learn more about Standing Together here: https://novascotia.ca/standingtogether/

Over the course of a few months last year, I met with dozens of women in communities across Nova Scotia. Initially, we planned on hosting sessions in five communities: Halifax/Dartmouth, Yarmouth, Amherst, Sydney, and Kentville. All of the meetings were hosted in accessible spaces, usually at NSCC campuses. We offered transportation for those women who needed a way to get to the meetings. We had American Sign Language interpreters when needed and I took the sighted-guide training at CNIB for those women attending who had visual impairments.

When I organized the meeting for Sydney, I invited those who worked in the domestic violence sector in communities elsewhere on the island. One of the staff told me I “might as well be hosting the meeting on the moon.” Nova Scotia, especially its rural communities, are not very accessible if you don’t have a car. At that point, we offered to host meetings in any community that wanted one. By the end of 2019, we hosted meetings in 12 communities from Sydney to Yarmouth. While each of these communities are unique, they share unfortunate commonalities for women with disabilities in situations of domestic violence.

The final report on the project will include highlights of some of the discussions we had on issues around disabilities and domestic violence such as accessibility at transition houses, second-stage housing, policing, access to communication like cell phone service and the internet, policing, and the stigma around domestic violence and disabilities.

These community sessions gave women with disabilities who experienced domestic violence a voice at the table. They were a chance to not only share their stories, which were heartbreaking to hear, but to share ideas on how to protect other women with disabilities experiencing violence. I am glad they felt safe enough to share what they experienced and what they needed to move forward.

These community sessions also gave women who work in the domestic violence sector a chance to share their own stories, too. In many cases, these women work alone or in organizations that are underfunded and understaffed. It’s probably rare they have a chance to meet like they did in these sessions. These women know this issue well, too, and meeting together gave them a chance to share what they hear with me and each other and to collaborate on ideas.

The recommendations in the final report were crafted from the solutions put forth from women with disabilities who’ve experience domestic violence and the women who work with them. This is what happens when you give women a voice at the table.

Many of the women I met with, including those women with disabilities and the staff, are from the communities where I hosted the meetings. Their stories gave me an invaluable insight into the cultures of these places. Domestic violence is normalized and the response to it very lacking. That needs to change.

But we couldn’t reach all the women we wanted. One of the challenges we faced was that many women with disabilities, particularly in rural areas, are geographically isolated and socially isolated. It’s part of the cycle of abuse. Despite our attempts to share that we were hosting these sessions, it simply wasn’t safe for some women to attend. Perhaps their disabilities meant they couldn’t get out of their house, they didn’t have accessible transportation, and they didn’t want their abuser to know where they were going. One of the goals of this project and its recommendations is to find ways to reach out to these women and help them leave these situations. We have to get to them.

The finale of this project is timely since the issue of domestic violence is on many minds lately after the horrific and tragic shootings in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19. We learned those shootings started with and were rooted in acts of domestic violence. Even now, more stories are emerging about how the killer abused his partner, owned illegal firearms, and threatened neighbours. There were countless red flags that were ignored. Experts in the domestic violence field have shared in news stories that they knew this shooting started with an act of domestic violence. They know the signs well.

The Not Without Us Project is just a start in helping women with disabilities escape situations of domestic violence, but it’s an important start. We learned a lot and made connections with women in other communities who work on issues of domestic violence. Sherry Costa and Joanne Bernard showed real leadership in recognizing this issue and asking that it be studied further. Now, we look to the Accessibility Directorate and communities across Nova Scotia to take what we shared and reach out to these women themselves. Keep bringing these women to the table and listen to their stories.

To learn more about the Not Without Us Project, contact Suzanne Rent at suzannerentnwu@gmail.com

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