When a whole new set of barriers and barricades popped up during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Breaking Down Barriers kept earning their name by finding safe ways over, around, underneath and through the things stopping community members from enjoying independence and choices in life.
Since renovations were already well underway on the Breaking Down Barriers Independent Living Centre in Collingwood, a few more practical and innovative touches were added to keep services going during COVID-19.
The historic home at 234 Ste Marie Street is now ready for its big reveal, and that includes a new set of hybrid virtual/in-person options for Breaking Down Barriers programs and supports.
Physical barriers in the home have been removed through the installation of larger doorways, automatic door buttons, an accessible washroom, a floor that stays smooth room-to-room, and a newly paved driveway so there aren't any potholes to navigate with a mobility device.
There is also some new technology in the independent living centre, one of only 11 free centres like it in Ontario, to allow people of all abilities and resources to participate in online meetings and programs. An Owl Cam uses a 360 camera and microphone to make a Zoom call from a conference room easier to hear, see, and participate in, and a Google doorbell means staff can do any necessary screening and open doors remotely where necessary.
Those signed up for hybrid programming can get help learning how to use a computer or iPad, they can borrow tech devices if they need them, and they get supplies in an activity pack so they can follow along with the activities being done in each program.
People without Internet access could get a recording of the program to watch on a laptop or DVD player.
"If we met an obstacle, we thought, 'OK, how can we solve it?'" said Teresa Gal, executive director of Breaking Down Barriers for Simcoe, Bruce and Grey Counties and the Collingwood independent living resource centre. "It's living up to our name and breaking down those barriers."
A new seniors program has ballooned with some online sessions attracting more than 300 participants.
Breaking Down Barriers serves a wide array of people living with physical, emotional, sensory, or intellectual disabilities by offering them resources and support to live independently and make choices about what works best for their lives.
Because of direct funding available for people with disabilities, there are options outside of institutionalization and more independence over daily life and decisions, said Gal.
The organization has been involved in supporting people who have transitioned out of institutions and into living independently by offering programs from life skills to tax clinics to gardening, art, and food preparation. The organization also offers help in finding grants to help retrofit homes and businesses to make them more accessible.
Gal said offering choices and access is a key change brought about by what's known as the independent living movement – a stepping away from the institutionalization and exclusion of people with disabilities.
"There's a way, there's always a way, and if that barrier is there, let's see how we can remove it," said Gal. "It's all possible, it's all doable, and sometimes there's a little bit of work and sometimes there's no work ... but knowing that you are the one who can make those decisions ... and you have options, I think that's the amazing part that everybody needs to know at all times."
One of the keys to Breaking Down Barriers being successful in its mission to support people living independently is for everyone in the community to know the organization is there and providing free programs and support.
"We really want the community to know what we're about," said Gal, extending an open invitation to the upcoming open house on Sept. 18. "What we're hoping to achieve is for everyone to learn about our programs and services. It's going to be an interactive tour."
Breaking Down Barriers staff will offer a glimpse into the new hybrid program model, how it works and what technology is making it more accessible, as well as offering tours of the home kitchen where practical lessons to help people live independently take place.
"I think, more than anything, people will get to see what's available to the whole community," said Gal, noting the organization supports people with disabilities, as well as their families and business owners who are trying to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
The open house takes place Monday, Sept. 18 with a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. and guided tours starting at 11 a.m. Anyone is invited to attend, but those wishing to visit are asked to RSVP because the tours will be guided. RSVP to [email protected].