I vividly remember a point in time where I wished desperately that the whole world was in a wheelchair, so that everyone could know what my daughter had to go through just to go to someone’s home. Now, it looks like the city of Austin, Texas is creating that world. Well, kind of.
Recently, news broke that the city council is deciding on a measure that could make all newly built homes wheelchair accessible. The first two drafts have already been approved, and it looks like the third and final draft may push through without a problem. If approved, levered door handles, light switches placed at lower heights and wide doorways will be required on the first floors of new single-family homes and duplexes. Not widely talked about – yet – the idea behind the legislation is known as “visitability.” This is a concept in home design that seeks to allow resident or visiting wheelchair users to access a home without issue. There are cities in the U.S. that already have these rules in place: San Antonio, Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Tucson, Ariz. According to the website www.visitability.org, a home is visitable when it meets three basic requirements:
* At least one zero-step entrance
* Doors with a minimum of 32-inch clearance
* At least one bathroom on the main floor that is wheelchair accessible
Some of you may be wondering why this is necessary. If you’re reading this and you’re not disabled then you probably don’t view this as important enough to warrant regulation. But remember, just because you weren’t born with a disability doesn’t mean you will never become disabled. Here are three examples you may have never thought about:
1. Old Age
Think about your (or your friends’) grandparents. Do they use walkers or hearing aids? Do they have trouble standing, reaching, bathing, or cooking? Did they always have those problems? Most likely, these disabilities are of the acquired type. An acquired disability is a condition that was not present at birth, but rather, occurs at some point during an individual’s life. Oftentimes, the word “disabled” is not used when referring to senior citizens, especially if they’ve lived independently their entire lives. But that’s exactly what they have become (and what the large majority of us will become should we be blessed enough to live into our 60’s and beyond). A home built with visitability in mind will increase the chances that a person can live on in their own home rather than being moved into a nursing facility. And by “a person” I mean YOU!
There are also people who remain healthy into their 30’s and 40’s and then become ill or develop medical conditions which limit their ability to be as independent as they have always been. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) typically begin to appear in adults around this age and are debilitating diseases which cause severe physical disabilities. Don’t think this will happen to you? MS tends to appear between the ages of 20 and 40 in otherwise normally developing people and fifteen new cases of ALS are diagnosed daily in the US.
Arthritis is another culprit. According to the CDC, nearly two-thirds of people with arthritis are younger than 65. It’s the most common cause of disability and limits or prevents over 21 million Americans from being able to climb stairs, walk extended distances, or work. It’s more common in women than men but affects all racial and ethnic groups. One study shows that the risk of developing osteoarthritis in your knee that causes pain is 45% and estimates show that 57% of people who have had a knee injury or are obese will develop osteoarthritis. That’s about half of you reading this!
And of course, there are countless other conditions that can strike at any time and cause disability in an adult who has otherwise lived a healthy and independent life.
What about those that are in accidents and become paralyzed or receive a traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Have you seen the show Push Girls? Every one of those women was in an accident that paralyzed them. Any of these situations can happen to each and every one of you. Sounds bleak, I know, but imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t enjoy the little things you do now, like going to your sister’s house for dinner or to your friend’s for girls night as you always have because your wheelchair can’t go up the one step leading into their home, or your wheelchair can’t get through the doorway into the living room. Now imagine if every new home built allowed you to come and go as you please, without even a thought.
According to the US census, 1 in 5 citizens has at least one disability and the number is set to grow as baby boomers age. Just over 1 in 4 American citizens in their 20’s will become disabled before they retire. But the “that can’t happen to me” mentality keeps most of us from worrying about our futures. 64% of wage earners believe they have a 2% or less chance of being disabled for 3 months or more during their working career. The actual odds for a worker entering the workforce today are about 25%!
Maybe it’s time you start thinking about what could happen to you or your spouse now and planning ahead. Don’t you think having a home already set up to visitability standards would make your life easier in the long run? I hope to see this concept become the standard in my lifetime for all our sakes.