When my parents decided to build our family home, they wanted to provide a better life for us. Moving out of Philadelphia to a better school district was their number one priority; accessibility wasn’t even on the radar. After all, why should it have been? They were in their late 30s, both healthy individuals with a young active family. How would they have known that six years after moving my mom would break her leg? Who would’ve guessed that fall, and the many subsequent ones that followed, would eventually lead to diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis?
Due to the poor layout and the progression of her disease, that house became unsafe for mom and she was forced to move. Too young to feel comfortable in assisted living, my mom, now using a walker, moved into a 55+ adult community where surprisingly the houses were not very accessible. As time went on, walking took more effort, and ultimately she moved to a motorized wheelchair.
When my mom moved to Montana, so we could more efficiently help her, we quickly found that affordable accessible housing was limited. We eventually found a single level house with wider doorways, a place for ramps, and a big enough bathroom to renovate to make it more accessible.
We are grateful that she had the resources to do this. There are many people with disabilities who are unable to afford home modifications and are either forced to remain in homes that are ill-equipped to meet their needs or to move prematurely into assisted living facilities.
My own forward thinking wasn’t much better. When we bought our cute 1950s-built house ten years ago, I didn’t foresee having a child who might have difficulties with mobility. Even though I saw my mother’s physical decline, I didn’t envision her ever visiting my house, let alone moving to Montana. Perhaps worst of all, I never gave a second thought to being unable to invite my friends or my kids’ friends to our house who might have mobility difficulties. And of course, I hadn’t thought about my own aging either. We can improve our home with the addition of a ramp however if Gia, my mom, or a visitor with disabilities wants to go to the bathroom, it would require a major renovation. We will most likely need to move into a more accessible house in our near future.
And we aren’t the only ones.
It is estimated that over the 80-year lifetime of a newly built single-family detached home, there is high chance that 1 out of 4 residents will have a disability that greatly inhibits their mobility. The percentage of houses who would entertain visitors with a disability is a much higher 91% estimate. 1 The probability of housing a resident or entertaining visitors with disabilities only increases as we age. This lack of accessibility will likely become an issue for ourselves, our family, and our friends. Given that people would like to retain their independence as long as possible, clearly this is a problem we should be addressing. Thankfully, there are many housing advocates to call on.
Visitability is a movement to change the building practices of newly constructed homes so that they will all have a few standard features to make it easier for people with mobility difficulties to live and visit. There are three elements to consider: 1) One zero-step entrance 2) Doors with 32-36 inches of clear passage space 3) One bathroom on the main floor with maneuver space for a wheelchair. These factors would benefit not just the resident, but friends, family members, neighbors, and children with disabilities from birth or acquired or progressive disabilities. Also, these features are great for anyone: someone balancing many grocery bags, an elderly person who is a bit unsteady on stairs, a child who might be in a temporary cast, ‘trick or treaters’, like Gia, that might need a little help walking. In addition, basic access are ideal for moms pushing a whole stroller, sleeping baby included, safely into the house. (That feature alone is worth its weight in gold!). Yet, a 2004 survey conducted of Montana residents indicated that only 1 out of 5 homes had a no-step entry.
Thanks to the grassroots efforts of several local advocates, these numbers will be improving. In early October, the Montana Board of Housing adopted regulations to make Visitability the minimum accessibility requirement for future construction of all of Montana’s housing funded with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)! Considering about 38% of our nation’s non-elderly low-income housing renters have a disability, this is a great place to start. Recently, changes were also introduced to the State’s HOME Program to require Visitability design for ALL new construction and remodels. If this is accepted, Montana will become the only state to require Visitability design in the LIHTC and HOME Programs!
Housing advocates are working hard for this because they care about all families; knowing disability is part of everyone’s life. It’s something we can’t predict. We may have typical children who might not need these features, but what about the temporary broken ankle? What about us as we age? What about our parents? And on this Veteran’s Day, let’s not forget about those able-bodied individuals who serve our country, some of whom will return with disabilities. This is one of the strongest needs in our community, one we can’t afford to ignore. By integrating Visitability design into housing plans it would cost about an extra $600, but would save each family thousands in renovations, extend the homeowner’s independence, breakdown social isolation, provide a nice place for visitors with a disability. Visitability means a stronger community for everyone.
Here are some very easy ways for you to help!