BY KAY SEVERINSEN
A friend of mine is in a wheelchair now. Her home was built more than 40 years ago for an active, able-bodied family. I doubt the designers ever wondered if a wheelchair would fit through the kitchen door. So here is the answer – with difficulty.
Their architect also gave no thought to how one might roll a wheelchair from the car through the front door. A series of level changes – a concrete porch here, a step-up doorway there – act like little Mt. Everests for the disabled.
The notion of “universal design,” which promotes a built environment that everyone can live in comfortably, has been around for awhile now, but a new book, “The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities,” (Taunton Press, $27.95) gives readers page after page of color visuals to go with the ideas and instructions. It’s also full of information for the able bodied.
For instance, did you know that people with spinal cord injuries often have trouble regulating their body temperature? Several of the homes pictured in the book have heated floors and additional heating and cooling equipment to provide a cozy environment. The wheelchair-bound often cannot see out of windows as well as those who are standing, so lower windows offer a better view.
The book and its focus are well-timed, since the Census Bureau reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability. According to a report, “Americans with Disabilities 2010,” the total number of people with a disability increased by 2.2 million since 2005 and there are more now reporting severe disabilities.
Accessible homes have much more than just grab bars in the bathroom. They start, says author Deborah Pierce, with the path to the door. Instead of steps, accessible homes have entryways that are level with the adjoining sidewalk. Walkway materials can be differentiated by color and texture that make them easier to navigate for those with low vision.
Better design enables residents to perform normal activities. A low stove or sink with no cabinet underneath let a wheelchair slide close enough to work and foster independence. My friend used to love to cook, but now she cannot reach across her countertops or stove.
Other basics: Place electrical outlets higher on the wall within easy reach; roll-in showers are easier for those who can walk, too; consider adding lower windows or a glass front door so that those with a lower point of view can see. Have at least one mirror tilted or lower on the wall.
A common problem in the homes of many elderly is clutter, but too much furniture, piles of magazines and so forth make a disabled person’s life even more confining. Shoes on the floor, shopping bags that need to be emptied, an extra chair in the kitchen –these types of things keep a disabled person trapped and unable to even navigate his own home.
The book also addresses the outdoors. It can be very difficult to roll an adult over grass, which means that they rarely get off the pavement. In one back yard, the ground was carefully leveled and covered with artificial turf. In another case, permeable pavers were planted with grass. The pavers keep the ground solid under the wheels, and the grass appears to have filled in completely.
Gardening is much easier for the disabled with raised beds. You see them outside nursing homes, but they can be built around homes as well.
Retrofitting an older home, such as my friend’s, can be costly, but some grants and insurance moneys are available.
- Disabled veterans should start with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) www.va.gov
- Chicago and Illinois residents will find a list of local and state resources at http://www.disabilityrights.org/mod3.htm.
- Home modification and repair programs may be available in your area. For information, contact your local Area Agency on Aging or call 800-252-8966 or 888-206-1327 (TTY). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other resources include:
- National Association of Area Agencies on Aging http://www.n4a.org/