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Woman wins human-rights case over ramp in apartment building

British Columbia's Human Rights Tribunal has awarded more than $15,000 to an elderly woman who said she was discriminated against when her apartment building's landlord refused to construct a ramp.

Joyce Stewart, 68, has lived in the building in the Vancouver Island city of Campbell River since 1999. Ms. Stewart, who has severe osteoporosis and a clubfoot, has been forced to shift from a cane to a walker in recent years. She told the tribunal that getting down the five concrete steps outside the building's entrance has become extremely difficult and she has had to restrict her outings.

She filed her human-rights complaint in December, 2010, after her ramp request was denied. Tribunal member Marlene Tyshynski, in a ruling issued late last week, ordered the landlord to pay Ms. Stewart $15,000 for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect. She also ordered the landlord to construct the ramp and to pay Ms. Stewart an additional $500 for not providing documents related to the case in a timely manner.

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"I expected the ramp, but not the $15,000," Ms. Stewart said in an interview Wednesday, adding that she was fighting not just for herself but also for her elderly neighbours.

Ms. Stewart, who previously worked in accounting but has retired, provided the tribunal with a report from the physiotherapist who has treated her for several years. The report said she has had multiple surgeries to repair her congenital right clubfoot, but with no success. She also has osteoporosis in her left hip. The report said stairs are a major obstacle because Ms. Stewart cannot lift her body weight vertically to get from one step to the next. Ms. Stewart began using the walker in June, 2010.

There were three respondents in the case – Satorotas Enterprises Ltd., Alan Oakley and Patricia Vermette. The building is owned and operated by Satorotas, of which Ms. Vermette is the sole shareholder. She did not appear at the hearing. Mr. Oakley, her common-law spouse, did.

Ms. Stewart said she spoke to Mr. Oakley about constructing the ramp in August, 2010, but he told her – and later the tribunal – that the respondents had spent a significant amount of money renovating the building and could not afford to erect the ramp.

Ms. Stewart broached the subject again in October. Again, Mr. Oakley declined.

Mr. Oakley testified that owners have the right "to say no to spending large amounts of money we don't have. … This is not discrimination; it is what is reasonable."

In her ruling, Ms. Tyshynski said the entrance steps have had "an adverse impact" on Ms. Stewart, who "suffers anxiety about her ability to negotiate them." She said the respondents also did not establish that they could not afford to build a ramp.

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Despite the feelings raised by the case, Ms. Stewart said in the interview she fully intends to continue living in the building. She said the ramp isn't just good for her – it's also good for one of her neighbours who uses a cane, and another who is blind. She said the ramp will also be to the building's benefit, since appliances or equipment will be easier to move.

In an e-mail, Mr. Oakley said he was "devastated" by the ruling. He said he and Ms. Vermette are looking into their options.

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