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.
These drawbacks can be changed through a different approach to construction:
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.
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.
Planning in advance of construction or renovation for maximum feasible access is the easiest and most economical.
Three cases in point:
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.