Could Someone in a Wheelchair Visit Your House?
Suburban Architecture Shows Our Assumptions and Our Ableism
Not a single house in my neighborhood is wheelchair accessible, not even the ground floor. Every house could be.
Why should I care? After all, I am not in a wheelchair. I have never needed a wheelchair — yet. One day, though, I will. And you will too.
Why? It might be a broken leg. Or a complicated pregnancy. Or a torn knee-tendon. Injuries after a car accident. Complications from Lyme’s disease. Rheumatoid arthritis. Old age.
The reasons people end up in wheelchairs are numerous and usually unexpected. We assume our own good health until we lose it. Those who design our homes, however, should expect that at some point during our occupancy we might need a wheelchair. Right now, nothing requires that architects plan for that. So, they don’t.
Our parking — all street parking — has no ramps up to the sidewalk. Every entryway is accessed by two to four poured-cement stairs. Homes have cramped half-baths on the first floor, but two full baths on the second floor.
With a little thought and a tiny amount of creativity, every parking spot could ramp up to the sidewalk. Entry to the homes could be via a diagonally set concrete ramp. There could be a full bath on the first floor. None of those changes would have cost anything more than the current arrangement.
Faulty Assumptions Guide Neighborhood Design
Why didn’t the builders make those accommodations?
They were targeting young families. The builders have been installing similar neighborhoods all around the city. These are meant to be “starter homes.” They are very cookie-cutter, fast to build, and cheap.
Young families, according to the builders, clearly don’t need wheelchair accommodations. Do they have any idea how torturous stairs are to a woman after she’s given birth? I may not have technically needed a wheelchair, but I avoided stairs as much as I could during that season.
If they had thought about wheelchairs, they would have built a ramp up to the porch that I would happily use with my toddler’s stroller. No one loses from wheelchair accessibility.
Not everyone in my neighborhood is young. An older couple lives two houses down from me. I watched the lady of the house help her friend navigate the stairs on a walker this week. The week before, I watched her assist her granddaughter who recently had her leg amputated at the hip due to cancer.
At the far end of the neighborhood lives another elderly couple. You wouldn’t guess it from the outside of their house, which sports a basketball hoop. It’s for their thirteen-year-old grandson, who lives with them. They are raising him, hoping to remain in good enough shape to see him through his high school years. Likely, they weren’t counting on the expense of a child in their retirement years. They live now in a cheaper, family-oriented neighborhood instead of a 55+ retirement community.
The Edge of a Growing Need
I think about accessibility issues more these days because my baby boomer generation parents are aging. Still relatively healthy in their 60s, they would probably roll their eyes at me for writing that. They live in a two-story townhouse that they rent in California.
Mom has a knee and ankle that bother her from time to time. Dad’s back threw a disk a few years back. Age is starting to take its toll.
As America enters an era where it will have more elderly couples than young families, will it have the housing to let them age in dignity with some level of independence? Will there be enough affordable, wheelchair-accessible units?
No. Because there are already aren’t. Apartment List reported that “In the United States there are 15.2 million households with a physical disability but only 6.6 million homes that are ‘livable to people with moderate mobility difficulties.’” Of those 6.6 million homes, only 1.3 million are occupied by a household with a physical disability. Currently, 13.9 million households juggle caring for a physical disability while in a house that makes it harder instead of easier.
Easy Solutions Are Available
Housing is under-supplied across major US cities right now. We need a construction boom. We need new housing to be affordable. Multi-unit townhomes suburbs are great for this. But instead of using the templates currently on hand, I ask that builders make one change: build every house with ground-level accessibility.
In multi-family units, “shared areas” are required to be wheelchair accessible. This usually means that ground floor apartments are handicap accessible since the units share an entryway. In multi-family units without any shared areas (townhouses being the prime example), none of the entryways are shared, so none of them are required to be accessible.
Building with ground-level accessibility allows for easy conversion if longer-term arrangements are needed. For a short-term rehab, you can sleep on a couch downstairs. Longer-term, you could install a chair lift on the stairs. You could remove some cabinets in the kitchen and adjust the counter-height as needed. You could frame toilets and put supports for bathtub transfers in place. Any indoor conversions are pointless if someone in a wheelchair can’t get into the house in the first place.
Wheelchair accessible housing doesn’t just make life better for wheelchair-bound residents. It also means that an old lady can have her friend hobble up the ramp on her walker for a visit instead of worrying about breaking her hips on the stairs. It means the family helping their daughter through cancer treatment doesn’t have to worry about how she will manage the stairs after her amputation. It means young moms can ask for a wheelchair for their first few days at home after a horrible birth.
What if instead of assuming healthy residents, we assumed that every family had a close friend in a wheelchair, and they wanted to be able to have that friend over for dinner? Maybe even to spend the night?
Let’s build for that.