A Call for "Visitability

Despite improvements in disability access, homes still routinely exclude people with disabilities. Eleanor Smith suggests a different approach to construction and modification. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs4/smith.html

by Eleanor Smith, Concrete Change

Tremendous improvements in disability access have occurred since I was a child in the 1940s and '50s, using a wheelchair from age three on. Many of these improvements have come to be considered customary building practices, helpful to the general population as well as people with disabilities. In earlier years, disabled people wheeled down the street looking for a driveway to getup on the sidewalk. Now, curb cuts at corners are common. In earlier years, children with disabilities often waited outside while their friends ran up the steps into a store to buy a trinket or treat. Now, new stores offer the freedom to come and go.

However, one thing remains the same in the '90s as when I was a child: homes still routinely exclude people with disabilities. Mobility-impaired people often have trouble finding places to live, and they rarely can freely enter other people's homes to visit.

The construction requirements of the 1988 Fair Housing Amendment, affecting newly-constructed multifamily housing, are a move in the right direction. New apartments on the ground floor must have basic access, and if the building has an elevator, all units must have basic access. However, single-family houses - both new and renovated - and renovated department buildings continue to contain barriers that exclude people with mobility impairments as residents or visitors. The steps at every entrance and the narrow, impassable bathroom doors are the most formidable hindrances. Both of these major barriers could often be avoided with forethought and very little financial cost.

When only a few houses or apartment units have full access, while all the other housing units have no access at all, there are some unfortunate results.

  • People with mobility impairments are segregated from others, isolated in their own homes and cut off from the gatherings meetings, friendships and other important life experiences that take place as people visit one another.
  • When non-disabled persons who occupy inaccessible homes develop impairments, they must disrupt their lives and their families' lives by finding a new place to live or waiting for expensive renovations to be done. Meanwhile, they often remain severely confined in their inaccessible homes, or unable to return home from a hospital, or sent prematurely to a nursing home.
  • In reality, many low-income people who develop mobility impairment do not have the opportunity to move because of the difficulties involved. Instead they remain in inaccessible homes which are unsafe, demeaning and frustrating. A resident in these circumstances cannot enter or leave the home without being carried because every entrance has steps, and cannot use his or her own bathroom because the door is too narrow.
  • The current system of having a small percent of apartments with full access and the rest with no access deprives apartment managers of flexibility in renting. Accessible apartments may sit empty because no appropriate user comes along soon enough. The manager naturally, and rightly, rents the unit to a non-disabled renter. Then, when a disabled person arrives and the apartment is occupied, he or she has to look elsewhere. If instead, many or all units offered basic access, i.e. a usable entrance and passable interior doors, the disabled person could move into any unit and then, if they wished, transfer later to a more fully accessible unit when one became available.

These drawbacks can be changed through a different approach to construction:

1. Prioritize access features

Long, unprioritized lists of access features and suggestions have created the misconception that all access features are equally urgent, and that if you can't accomplish all, you may as well do none. Certainly many suggestions or requirements are good and needed, especially in public buildings. However, they are not of equal urgency. A lower kitchen cabinet is good, but a no-step entrance is essential. A higher toilet is needed by some, but a wide enough door is essential.


2. Use feasibility as a standard

Instead of stopping when a certain percentage of legally required units have access, or building with access only when the immediately designated resident has a disability, use feasibility as a standard. In new construction and renovation, each house or apartment should be individually evaluated to create the maximum feasible number of units with basic access.


3. Plan in advance

Planning in advance of construction or renovation for maximum feasible access is the easiest and most economical.

Three cases in point:

  • Progress Redevelopment, Inc., a nonprofit developer in Atlanta, received federal assistance and private subsidies through a public-private partnership to renovate an abandoned, 8-story hotel, called the Imperial, into 120 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments. The building was gutted, with only the floors and stairwells remaining. When disability advocates asked to see the architectural drawings, they discovered that the required "15% handicapped units" had 32-inch clear bathroom doors, but all other units were slated to have new 26-inch bathroom doors, which would prohibit passage of a wheelchair. Following discussions, the plans were redrawn, and when the building opened all units had 32-inch bathroom doors. These changes added little if any cost to the project.
  • When Tim O'Neill, board member of the Federal Housing Finance Board, visited the Imperial during renovation, he noted, "The Imperial House is an example of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta's efforts to be at the forefront of helping the physically challenged to obtain housing designed to fit their needs". The original plans met the legal requirements, but the new plan is significantly more friendly and practical.
  • John Hiscox, executive director of the housing authority in Macon, Georgia, obtained federal funds to build 91 single-family homes. Because he was alert to access due to the mobility impairment of a family member, he chose to build all of the homes with one no-step entrance and 32-inch bathroom doors. The additional cost was virtually zero. "The striking thing about these houses," says Hiscox, "is not how different they are, but how un-different they are."

Two public housing projects slated for renovation in Atlanta contain more than 300 entrances into the town-house style units. The units are only slightly above grade, and before renovation more than 90% of the entrances had two small steps - one from the sidewalk to the porch, and another from the porch into the unit. When disability advocates looked at the renovation plans, they saw that two new steps had been planned for each of these hundreds of units, creating new barriers for any mobility-impaired person. Yet by pouring the new porch a little higher to eliminate the step from the porch to the interior and then bringing the sidewalk up to the porch gradually to eliminate the need for a step, residents of these units could be visited by disabled friends and neighbors. The housing authority revised the plans and were able to achieve more than 80% entrance access in the two projects. Voluntary willingness to change construction practices can bring advantages to developers, realtors, property managers, and others as well as significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities and those in their circles.

For further information, see Concrete Change's website

This article is reprinted with permission from Community Enterprise, a newsletter published by the Federal Home Loan Bank in Atlanta, GA.