We are all accustomed accessibility features in commercial and public buildings. The ADA and other civil rights legislation changed all of that many years ago. And while many advocate for universal design (that benefits “all” and so that you don’t have to “see” accessibility features – but that’s another topic) in the entire built environment, let’s look at something that affects us daily: our homes.
Commercial building codes typically do not apply to one-, two-, and three-family dwellings. Neither do ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Fair Housing Amendments Act, nor other similar requirements. So what’s the problem with this? Well, nothing in particular – unless you need an accessible home. But let’s break this down even further because most people don’t want to spend (or have) the additional time, money, and resources to make their home accessible if they may never need that. For that matter we never know what kind of disabilities we may need to plan for. And that’s a valid statement. Accessibility is not a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, some disabilities have conflicting needs. For example, some may require lowered amenities for wheelchair access while others may have neuromuscular or orthopedic issues that do not allow them to bend or stoop.
So what to do?
Well, let’s start with something simple. Since we can’t necessarily plan for what disabilities may or may not enter our lives and it probably doesn’t make sense to plan for a “worst-case” scenario, what does make sense? Start with something simple….
IF YOU HAVE A WELCOME MAT AT YOUR DOOR, THEN MEAN IT – AND LET ME IN.
If you were to visit a home – any home: family, friend, neighbor – what are the basic things that you would expect? First and foremost, to make sure I can get in the door. Once inside, to move about and visit, to perhaps use the restroom, and then be able to leave (especially if they are family J.) And that’s the basic premise of visitabilty – as one friend with a disability told me, “I just want to be able to get in, have a beer with my neighbor, pee and leave.”
So more seriously, what is visitability? Visitability is a movement to change home construction so that new (and renovated, of possible) homes are easier for people with physical disabilities to visit. It is based on the principle that including basic access is the right thing to do – and it improves safety and livability for all.
Unlike accessibility, visitablity is simple: be able to get in, visit, use the bathroom, and get out. It doesn’t mean adding ramps, grab bars, or anything special and it all boils down to three basic features:
Simple, right? And if it’s done during new construction the cost is zero or negligible. Residential building codes already require 36” wide corridors and most houses have a wide front door for both aesthetic reasons and to help get furniture in and out. And the added cost of wider doors is insignificant – same hardware, same labor, maybe a little more door – but you have a little less wall, too. So figure out how to get rid of a step at the door and get to and into a bathroom and you’re there! You don’t need ramps, handrails, grab bars, tubs, showers, special fixtures, or turning radii – after all, you’re not moving anyone in – just letting them visit – and, as any gracious host would do, you can always offer assistance if your guest needs it.
So what are the benefits of visitability if I don’t even know anyone who needs this? It provides a more comfortable experience to everyone, including seniors and individuals with mobility needs, and can increase resale value and marketability because it opens doors to more homeowners. Not only does it plan for the unexpected, but visitability is actually a sustainable design strategy – it allows for aging in place as homes can continue to meet the needs of the occupants and be welcoming to their guests for many years without costly changes or additions. It can also allow someone with a temporary disability to stay in their own home. The elements of visitabilty also make it easier and more convenient to bring in strollers, furniture, carts, appliances, etc.
Think about that – a single step can be a real barrier at times even for us “able-bodied” individuals.
Most importantly, visitability features cost little or nothing in new construction but can be very expensive – or even impossible – to retrofit later.
THE REHABILITATION ENGINEERING RESEARCH CENTER ON UNIVERSAL DESIGN AT THE UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO created an extensive report on visitability which can be found at http://idea.ap.buffalo.edu//Publications/pdfs/VisBkVer3703.pdf.
Nestore Melnyk, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect, an advocate, and a parent of a child with special needs. He is a principal at MSA Architects, vice-president of the Hamilton County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and a Leadership Cincinnati alumnus He has served on the City of Cincinnati’s Visitability Task Force and the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council.
He has also been involved with initiatives at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as well as other organizations and agencies working in the areas of children’s healthcare and developmental disabilities.