For the most part, Soldotna resident Cindy Wood is a typical 22-year-old. She enjoys fishing, skiing and watching movies. She speaks out for causes she believes in and greets challenges head-on. She longs for independence, ready to begin a life on her own.
Unlike many 22-year-olds, however, Wood does all this from a wheelchair, making many of her goals harder to achieve.
Her most recent stumbling block is finding a place to live in the Kenai-Soldotna area.
After six months living in temporary housing through Frontier Community Services, Wood is looking for something more permanent. She has spent the last three weeks calling and visiting apartments, looking for a place to call home.
The problem: She can't find housing that accommodates her and her wheelchair.
Even when she can get through the front door of a building, interior spaces such as bathrooms provide no room for her to maneuver her chair.
Wood is not the only person facing such problems.
Wini Crosby, executive director of Frontier Community Services, said the agency hears from people all the time who are in need of affordable, accessible housing.
"It's an ongoing issue," she said. "We almost always have people with mobility issues who can't find other places."
Cindy Wood navigates through the front door of the temporary apartment she is now living in. She said many homes have doors that are too narrow to maneuver a wheelchair through.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
The few wheelchair-accessible units that exist on the peninsula are almost always filled, with long waiting lists for occupancy.
Frontier owns one four-plex that it rents out to disabled people, but the agency does not want to own more, Crosby said.
"If only the community would just be responsive and build some accessible and affordable housing," she said.
Joyanna Geisler, who is director of the Independent Living Center in Soldotna, added that the lack of accessible housing is a problem all over the state, but particularly in the central peninsula area where the population is higher.
"I would like to say it might be just an awareness issue -- folks that build houses and own apartment complexes just aren't aware of the need," she said. "Unfortunately, I think the other reality is that there's an impression that people with disabilities and the elderly don't have money. From a business perspective, there may be an idea that it's not cost effective (to build accessible housing)."
She pointed out, however, that the huge demand for accessible housing should make it cost effective, especially when constructing new buildings.
"It is no more expensive to build accessible from the ground up," she said.
Geisler added that tax credits are available to individuals and companies who retrofit housing units to be wheelchair-accessible and that accessible houses have tremendous resale value.
"All of us, if we live long enough, are going to become disabled -- it'll be harder to move, we may be in wheelchairs," she said. "We're all going to need it."
"I refuse to believe I can't have the same things that everyone has in their lives," Cindy Wood said. "I just have to work harder for them."
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Wood said she understands that modifying buildings costs money. The situation remains frustrating, though. She said legislators have appropriated money to make fishing, sightseeing and getting around town easier for people with disabilities, and she appreciates the effort. However, the accommodations only go so far if people cannot find places to live in the area, she said.
"Cindy is a very independent person," Crosby said. "She wants to be more independent, but when you have those barriers it's hard."
For her part, Wood works with People First, an organization to support independence for people with disabilities. The group meets once a month, alternating between Soldotna and Homer, to discuss problems the members are facing and possible solutions. This week, Wood and others will travel to Juneau to present some of the discussions to the Governor's Council.
In the meantime, Wood said she hopes people on the peninsula will work to become more aware of the challenges faced by disabled individuals.
"I'm trying to make people more aware. I'm not the only person on the peninsula who is disabled," she said. "Down the road, people in my situation are going to need the same help I need."
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