Help! I’m Trying to Construct a Speech!

Guess who gets to speak to the local Home Builders Association next week about accessibility. Yep, that would be me. BWAAAA-hahaha! I can’t wait (she says, rubbing her hands together). But I’ll need your help.


The president of the association, who asked me to speak, wants me to talk about my reality versus what the builders believe constitutes accessibility. I plan to begin my talk with my experiences during the recent Parade of Homes.

Parade of Homes is an annual event where contractors showcase dwellings they’ve built. I checked out the drawings of the houses and diagrams of the insides, mapped out a course, and my husband and I took off one Sunday afternoon.

The closest I got to actually “seeing” what the inside of all but one place looked like were the diagrams: All but one condo had steps. One house I was particularly anxious to see, because the diagram looked as if the inside was designed to be accessible and the drawing seemed to show a zero entry; it actually had about six steps up to the entrance. The steps didn’t have a railing, and I watched one poor man who obviously had arthritis in his knees (ask me how I know) painfully make his way down the steps as I waited in the car while Hubby was inside.

And the inside? My husband said it was, indeed, accessible (if you could get in), but the toilet in the master bathroom was unusable because it was in its own little cubby.

I don’t have anything against steps up to a house. I have steps up to my house (but I also have a ramp). And most of the buildings on the Parade only had one or two steps, but an inexpensive portable ramp would have allowed everybody to go into the dwellings. I’m not going to buy a house if all I’ve seen is the outside. It might have the toilet in a tiny little cubby.

How about showers? I still have memories of sitting on my scooter, looking up at the (unreachable) detachable showerhead in an “accessible” hotel room. I have that problem at home, too, but I can push up on the hose to dislodge the showerhead. And it won’t be for much longer: My husband and I went to the contractor’s office yesterday and picked out the materials for the new bathroom. Work should begin in less than two weeks, with the tub area being done while we’re out of town.

But I digress. (Yeah, yeah, I’m excited about the bathroom!)

Doorway widths? I commandeered a wide wheelchair in a recently built medical office building in town and tried to enter the ladies’ room. The wheelchair was just a smidge narrower than the doorway. Enough that I had to line up the wheelchair just right and then pull myself through the door by grasping the sides of the doorframe.

Would it hurt to outfit the kitchen with cabinets that had pull-out baskets or shelves rather than fixed shelving? How about a deck with an area that could have a ramp added if (or when) needed? Levers — instead of knobs — on doors don’t pose a problem for able-bodied people, but could be imperative for somebody with problems grasping. On the downside, of course, a two-year-old could open the doors!

Twenty-one years ago, when we bought this house, neither of us thought about aging in it. We were young(er) and physical problems that come with age and injury were…well, unthought of. Our biggest dilemma came when we found out shortly after that we were to be grandparents…in a house with dark blue carpeting throughout. That was solved by having a room in the basement finished so the children would have a place where they could make messes. I can’t even get to that room now.

Because I still like the house, the neighborhood and (most of) the neighbors, I don’t want to move. Besides, after 21 years in the same house, I don’t even want to think about going through and packing up all of the miscellany that’s collected over the years!

The alternative is to make the necessary changes that will allow us to continue living here. We have the ramp. We’ll soon have an accessible bathroom. And we’re in the process of redoing the front door and threshold so I can get onto the porch. Right now, my scooter gets hung up on the threshold. The door, which had to be special-ordered, is in, and we just need to get together with the person who will do the work.

Next I’ll have to cogitate about the kitchen a bit.

Now, here’s where I need your help: If you had the ears of your town’s homebuilding contractors, what would you tell them about what you need to accommodate your disability? What could have been done differently in the building process that would allow you to easily make the necessary changes now?

I only know about mobility, and I don’t know everything about that. Scooters are not wheelchairs and I can get out of the scooter and, say, onto a stool in the kitchen. I can hear, I can see, my arms are workable (and present,) and my hands can grasp small objects. Builders need to know what we all need. Not just what those of us with mobility problems need.

Come on, now: Bring it on!

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  • Deb

    Besides ramps, a truly functional accessible kitchen and wide doorways, the main thing for me is an accessible laundry on the first (ground-level) floor. It was the one thing I did not get when we got our rancher. Actually, if I were looking for a house today I would want EVERYTHING on one floor. If my internet goes down when my husband isn’t home, too bad, the modem’s in the basement. If a circuit breaker flips when I turn on the microwave, too bad. Oh, and the kitchen shouldn’t have cabinet doors to get in the way, and a bottom freezer should be standard.

  • Beth

    A key concept for you to present would be Universal Design — the design of products, environments, and services to be usable by everyone, disabled and nondisabled alike. (A great example is curb cuts — originally designed for people in wheelchairs, and now used by lots and lots of nondisabled people on bicycles, on skateboards, pulling wagonds or wheeled luggage, pushing strollers, etc.)

    The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has LOADS of information about Principles of Universal Design (UD) and about UD applications. Here is the web iste:

    Then there is

    And another great online resource about UD, more focused on technology, is the Trace Center at University of Wisconsin at Madison:

  • Sheryl

    One of the apartment complexes I manage has two ADA wheelchair accesible apartments. Also, my husband in in a wheelchair so I have direct experience.

    One thing is flooring. It is difficult to use a wheelchair on padded carpeting. It is rather like going through soft sand. Also the the wheels turning against the carpet can cause it to come up. You need an industrial tile as wheelchairs are very hard on flooring. I just put in one that looks like hardwood and everybody wants it.

    In the kitchen, no counters under the sink so you can wheel up to it. The same for the sink in the bathroom. The oven should be self cleaning. Switches for the range hood vent and light should be counter level. A pantry is a good thing to have, not the walk in kind.

    Bathroom doors should open out. There should be enough room where the toilet is to turn a wheelchair around. A taller toilet is easier for many people who aren’t in a wheelchair too as the pivot point for the hips makes standing up easier for almost everyone. There are bars that can be attached for the handheld shower so it can be placed anywhere along that bar.

    Open floor plans with no coves or nooks or crannies are helpful too.

    I hope this helps.

  • Mary

    Jean, make sure the doors are light in weight. A heavy door is impossible if you are in a chair.
    Hallways need to be wide enough to be able to turn around in the chair.
    Electrical outlets should be at a higher level–say waist high rather than close to the baseboard. Plus, they should be as numerous as possible. Lightswitches that are a little lower to allow for wheelchairs. Who wants to reach up so far just to turn the light off?
    The controls for the kitchen range should be on the side or in front, NOT in back. Oven controls should also be in the front. Pull out shelves in the cupboards with stops so that they don’t fall out!
    Again, no cupboards under the sink. A pull out sprayer is a good idea.
    The counter top should be heat resistant for those pans that get moved from burner to counter.
    Laundry: Front loaders with the controls on the front. Up on a pedestal so that they are at wheelchair height.
    Bathroom: My wish would be a roll-in shower (no lip to get over). A low hand-held shower head.
    Low shelves for the bottles, a bench for sitting or leaning on (that should fold up when not in use). Open shelving for towels instead of doors that have to be maneuvered around.
    Hope these ideas help!

  • Mary

    Jan, forgot to mention that commercial grade carpet glued to the substrate–be it cement or wood–works well with chairs. NO PADDING. Area rugs can always be added for ambulatory people.
    Faucets need to be levers, not round handles.
    Be sure to check out the “Universal Design” that Beth mentioned. It’s a very useful site.

  • 3d

    Any house that is built new or greatly renovated should have the following:
    1) Ex-wide doors at entries and all rooms; it allows for change as needed, and when you move furniture at any point in your life, it’s great.
    2) Zero carpet – tile, stone or wood type hard flooring. You can always use rugs, which are much cleaner and only where really needed. This allows for wheeled items of any type (including luggage) as well as much easier if you have critters.
    3) Ramp or zero H entryway on at least 2 ways to get in/out of the house. In case of fire or moving stuff this is great.
    4) Hand bars in the shower/bath and hand held shower head that can be moved up/down on a bar. This manages things for those in chair, kids (or short adults). If room allows, a seating bench/area in the shower.
    5) All drawers and shelves should be on pull-out tracks (extra heavy duty)in all rooms.
    6) Add skylights/solar “holes” for both sunlight and moonlight. It can help you get around in power outages.
    7) Alternate fuel sources (plumbing & wiring)- have both gas/electric capable so you can change to the cheaper or more available one over time.
    8) Back-up power generator in an enclosed area that is linked with tied to your power box.
    9) If more than one story (that includes basement) – have space allocated for a small elevator to be installed at any time. If not used, this gives an extra closet on each floor to store those huge boxes of stuff you get at Sam’s Club.
    10) Any stairs outside or in must have hand rails.

    Having lived on 2nd story apartments and lugging stuff until my knees gave out I learned by my mid- thirties what’s what. Even now the 6 steps up the porch can be lethal some days, and forget the back porch which is steps of almost 1 story.

  • Patricia Pollard

    Interior and cabinet doors would be easier if those doors were the pocket kind.

  • Esther

    Dear Jan Chait:

    Thank you for bringing this type of building need to the public’s attention. I have a daughter who has a wheelchair, a quad-cane for use in the kitchen, and who has difficulty taking a bath, carrying things from the poorly appointed, though spacious kitchen, and has wood floors, except in the carpeted bedrooms. Her 2 sons, my grandsons, do heavy lifting, vaccuming, and cleaning. She is a great cook!

    Her chief problem is that she cannot carry anything from the kitchen to the table in dining area. She does, however, have a center kitchen workstation which is great! The customary triangular kitchen lay out (stove, fridge, sink)is not adequately laid out for her use. Sink needs to be closer to one side of the stove, e.g. She is also left-handed. Her microwave, for reheating or making sauces, is on the countertop which takes up that space, too.

    She has a laundry area, although small, at the other end of the house from the living areas. She is okay with that setup. She has her large Master bedroom at a separate end of the house from the two other bedrooms her sons occupy. She has had cerebral palsy from birth in 1960, when the technology just was not there to avoid it. Her condition is progressive, as are her needs.

    I have read the column and if the readers have any other suggestions, I would be glad to hear them. The previous owner of the house had already installed some handicap assisted devices to this house built about 19 years ago. It is a one story. Please incorporate some of these issues when you give your speech.

    Thank you,
    Esther Campbell
    Summerville, SC

  • Stephanie

    I’ve learned a few things from taking care of two dying family members with mobility issues.

    1. The doorways should be wide enough to accomodate a wheelchair (extra wide) and a caregiver pushing a wheelchair. This is a big problem in a lot of bathrooms. You can get the chair in but if the door swings in you can’t get the caregiver in as well.

    2. For two story houses they have stair lift chairs that can be installed, you can keep 1 chair at the top and one at the bottom.

    3. access to sinks means no cabnitry under any sink, including bathroom sinks so that the person in the chair can wash their hands anywhere.

    4. Stoves are tricky but it’s especially important that they be the right height for a person in the chair and that the controls are not on the back of the stove, thats a really easy way to get burnt.

    5. At least 2 chair accessable exits on each floor. I would also add extra smoke detectors.

    6. Flooring should be easy to manuever a wheel chair across. Not only is carpet difficult but highly pollished or waxed hard woods and linolium can be hard on the caregiver, making it difficult to keep their ballance.

    7. Roll in access showers are great. They have several types to choose from now. There are modifications that allow you to have a bench that swings down for use of one person then can be placed back up for users who do not need it. Again, depending on the surface, cleaning agents can make a huge difference. If the floor of the shower is tile and you’re applying lotion or baby oil to the person thats being showered, it makes the tile slick and dangerous for the chair and the caregiver. Certain bathroom cleaners can be the same way, slick tile is hard to stay upright on while pushing a wheelchair.

    8. Low cabinets that are accessable by chair so that you may get a glass, pots and pans, or even a snack with out help.

    9. Laundry that is accessable. This is a big help for the caregiver as well as the patient. Lugging heavy laundry baskets up and down stairs is hard on the back.

    10. The most important thing, a home that is comfortable, is pleasing visually to everyone. It is easy to “hide” the various tools needed to make a home handicap accessable so that they aren’t the first things you notice about a house. This is very important to some patients, that their home continues to look like a home, not a rehab facility or something of that nature.

  • Sheryl

    I did want to point out that carpet glued to the floor is not a good option. Wheels turning on a carpet moves it against the floor underneath causing it to come up which produces ripples that are very dangerous.

  • Lois La Rose

    Oh wow! You all thought of just about everything I would dearly love to have!

    The only thing I would recommend is to recommend to the designer that he/she should spend a day or more in a wheelchair living in the “reality” they are about to create for someone else. There is nothing like “walking a mile in his shoes” to really appreciate life that is a reality for many, many Americans.