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New GTA shelter space caters to Muslim women and children with disabilities | CBC News

Specially-built apartment helps fill gap in availability of accessible shelter spaces

Gavin Axelrod · CBC News · Posted: Feb 10, 2023 6:00 AM EST | Last Updated: February 10

Bins of sensory toys and tools for children are provided in the apartment. (Submitted by Sakeenah)New transitional housing has opened for Muslim women and children in Milton — a shelter space designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

"Even when we've had families with children who are either on the spectrum or with disabilities … sometimes they're not comfortable living with other strangers in a shared accommodation," said Nazish Tayab, director of programs for the national charity Sakeenah. Based in Mississauga, Sakeenah has provided transitional living accommodations for Muslim women and children across Canada since 2018. But the organization identified a dire need for spaces with better accessibility.

To that end, it has set up a private apartment that caters specifically to women and children with disabilities.

"The fact that we can give them that private living space where they can receive their therapy and services has been very much appreciated," said Tayab. The shelter space opened in late January with help from SMILE Canada, a non-profit that supports racialized youth with disabilities and their families.

SMILE will connect families using the shelter with culturally responsive therapists and resources, while covering the costs of those services when necessary to alleviate some of the financial strain on residents, said Nida Khan, director of education and research at the organization. The space includes accessibility features like lowered light switches, toilets, floor transition slips, moveable shower heads, bed rails and fire alarms that give visual and audible warnings.

The apartment was specially designed to make it as accessible as possible. (Submitted by Sakeenah)

"It's a really good step in showcasing to the public how important it is and what the needs are of these families specifically," said Khan.

"It's easy to overlook those within your community who have children with disabilities and the support they need, so this is a great reminder to us all that so much goes into the care of these children."

'Lived experience' helps connect with clients

Khan was diagnosed with a disorder when she was in university and developed disabilities through multiple surgeries. She is completely deaf in her left ear and deals with balance issues.

She said these day-to-today experiences have helped in her work with SMILE. "Having that added layer of lived experience whether you're racialized, have a disability or both, or you identify as the same faith, it creates more comfortable spaces for the families as well," she said.

A bedroom inside the newly opened shelter space. (Submitted by Sakeenah) And creating a comfortable place for families is a focal point of the new shelter. SMILE's culturally-responsive approach means staff speak the same language as clients and services like therapy are conducted without barriers. It is crucial for providing meaningful care to those who need it, Khan said.

"A family might not open up as much or communicate; there's just so much miscommunication that happens. But then when you add in that culturally responsive piece, those barriers kind of slowly go away," said Khan.

An eye toward the future

The Milton shelter is the seventh Sakeenah has opened, but it won't be its last with a focus on accessibility, according to Tayab. She said Sakeenah hopes to make ramps and railings commonplace in new locations. Adding an accessible shower facility and beds to a shared Sakeenah facility could be possible if the layout of the living space allows for it.

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And in the meantime the partnership between SMILE and Sakeenah is off to a solid start. "We've worked with SMILE Canada over the years to kind of give these clients support services that we couldn't really help them with," said Tayab. "But finally, we've had the opportunity to partner with SMILE again and we've opened an accessible apartment."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Gavin Axelrod Journalist

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