For a long time I’ve believed that we should all be strong supporters of civil rights for the physically disabled because this is the one minority group we could all find ourselves in one day. Last summer I learned how true this is when my 18 year old son developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune response to infection that can cause the sudden onset of paralysis, as it did in Greg’s case. In time and with proper treatment and rehabilitation, most GBS patients make a total recovery, and one year later Greg has almost totally recovered.
When Greg came home from the National Rehabilitation Hospital last September, he could walk only short distances with a walker and needed to have one of us close to him in case he fell. He was still using a wheelchair for longer distances, so accessibility was a major issue. Luckily we had moved less than a year before to a high-rise building in Friendship Heights, which unlike our old house, was wheelchair accessible, and our apartment had no stairs.
However, the doors to both Greg’s bathroom and ours were only two feet wide, which meant that Greg had to turn sideways with his walker to get in the door. Both bathrooms did not have grab rails, so we had to develop a strategy to help him get safely to the toilet without compromising his privacy. The shower situation was better: our shower had a bench and a handheld shower head, so once we got him into the shower, we could leave him alone and he could wash himself.
Greg’s experience has not only reinforced my commitment to disability rights, it has also made me a strong supporter of universal design and the concept of “visit-ability.” Houses and apartments which incorporate principles of universal design are suitable for both people with disabilities (including elders who are aging in place) and people without disabilities and are therefore particularly desirable for people who plan to age in place. Visit-able homes incorporate enough universal design features so someone with a disability can comfortably visit, but not live in, the home.
Although the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires that public facilities be accessible to persons with disabilities, there is currently no federal legal requirement that private homes be accessible. However, some state and local jurisdictions have adopted additional standards and requirements, and consumers are increasingly interested in housing that incorporates universal design features. This year Montgomery County adopted “Design for Life Montgomery“, the first voluntary certification program in Maryland for Visit-Ability and Live-Ability. The requirements for certification for visit-ability are:
- A no-step entry to the first floor that can be at the front, side or back of the house connected to an accessible route to a place to visit on that level.
- Doorways that are at least 32 inches wide.
- A usable powder room or bathroom.
To be certified as livable, a dwelling must meet these three requirements and also have at least one bedroom, full bathroom, and kitchen with a circulation path that connects the rooms to an accessible entrance. A builder or designer who is a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS), can advise homeowners about how best to remodel a home to meet these requirements.
Greg’s bathroom could use updating and if we live in our current apartment for more than a few years, I intend to remodel it to be accessible by widening the door, installing grab bars around the toilet, replacing the sink with a wall-mounted model that can be used by someone in a wheelchair, and replacing the bathtub with a shower with a flat floor. In doing so, I will be thinking not just of Greg’s experience but also that our apartment will be ready if at some point in the future my husband or I becomes disabled. We will also be ensuring that our home can welcome anyone as a visitor, regardless of physical ability
Courtesy of Sandra L.Hughes, Principal- Capital Aging Solutions LLC