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Addressing Accessibility in Home Design (Important Considerations)

Woman in a wheelchair going up a ramp to a house

Podcast Version

What do you think of when you hear “accessibility”?

It pertains to making everything from technology to the physical spaces we inhabit open to people with disabilities so they can participate in society and live independently. The disability community is not just comprised of people with physical disabilities who may require a wheelchair, crutches, or other mobility aid to get around, but people also have cognitive disabilities and chronic conditions that are not as visible to the naked eye. 

Able-bodied and neurotypical people often don’t realize that lack of accessibility in public spaces is a structural problem. I remember my college having these proselytizing signs up to “burn calories, not electricity!” by opting for the stairs instead of the elevator. You had to get a pass for certain elevators and basically prove you were “disabled enough” to need them. That kind of hostile bullshit? Is ableism in action and indicative of poor accessibility. If you have to ask for a ramp, an elevator key, and so on, then your design sucks. It’s NOT accessible.

But the challenge is compounded when it comes to residences where disabled houseguests may unfortunately be put in the awkward position of having to ask for help, or finding permanent housing to be a challenge.

With a significant portion of America’s population aging, and wanting to age in place, the lack of accessible homes in America is a major concern on this front as well. Homes were largely not built with disabled people in mind. 

Related: Interior Door Dimensions | Home Design for Short People | Home Architectural Styles | Modern Staircase Ideas | Elderly Friendly Bathroom 

The Retrofitting Dilemma

Man retrofitting front entrance to home for people with disabilities

Because homes are private, they’re not mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to be open to disabled people. There are exceptions in the law for older buildings, but even if that “openness” is poorly-executed, like having to ask a store manager for a ramp, it’s still an obligation and most people don’t have the time and energy to sue for ADA violations. But even if someone gets injured on your property, it’s still not an ADA matter because it’s not open to the public. Ergo, home design itself tends to not consider the needs of disabled people so most homes are inaccessible.

Per the American Planning Association, 90% of homes in America do not meet any accessibility standards. Of that 10% that does, like apartments, just because they have an elevator in the building doesn’t make them accessible. For instance, there’s three little stairs outside my building and three more going in. You need to wait for someone on the staff to come with a ramp if you have no one to help you up and down those stairs.

But it’s not just stairs. Most kitchen counters are not designed to be used while sitting down, if you can even fit a wheelchair or walker into most apartment kitchens. Doorways often can’t accommodate wheelchairs as well.

If you’re a young and able-bodied home buyer, you might not care about those stairs on the porch or inside the house. But if one of your elderly parents has to move in with you, or you or one of your household members gets sick or injured to point of needing a mobility aid, accessibility becomes a major concern.

Fixr places the average cost of accessibility-related retrofitting jobs to be about $9,000, but these jobs can encompass anywhere from a few hundred dollars for handlebar installation to tens of thousands for ramp and chairlift installations, and complete remodeling based on the residents’ needs. Other accessibility-related modifications include non-slip flooring, leveling of yards and walkways, lowering of countertops and appliances, and converting bathtubs to roll-in showers.

Because so many homes have little or no accessibility, and most people can’t afford all of the necessary modification work in one fell swoop, the work is often paced out over time even with the help of home equity loans. This is partly why millions of disabled people can face extreme isolation, and the same is likely to hold true for Boomers who want to age in place and are starting to face mobility issues.

Accessible vs. Universal Design

Mother pushing a stroller on the sidewalk

The key difference between accessible versus universal design is that the former refers to a place that was designed without considering the needs of disabled people and has modifications done to ameliorate this, while universal design considers how people use a space and design it so that as many different people can use it as possible. Think of accessibility efforts as buying a garment, finding it doesn’t fit right, then getting it tailored while universal design just makes a whole new garment from scratch that can fit a variety of users.

The chief point of universal home design is that it these types of blueprints make the home and lot usable to everyone, with no need for retrofitting or relatively small costs in some cases.

For instance, one-story homes are inherently more accessible than a two-story home. But a home designed with the universal method would either include ramps or a lift up to the second floor, or have a one-story plan that disabled people could easily navigate. Another popular universal design component is placing electrical outlets so that no one has to get on their hands and knees–difficult to do if you are elderly, pregnant, or have medical conditions that make it hard to bend–to use them. Doors are wider so that wheelchair users can enter and exit with ease, and stairs are verboten.

While universal design is starting to get implemented in public spaces sooner than homes, the retrofitting crisis is definitely pushing home builders with fresh blueprints to approach them again. After all, Millennials went through hell and high water to buy a place to begin with, the last thing we want to do is abandon them when the only other option on the market will be some $60 million McMansion by the time our teeth are falling out and boy bands of the 90s are doing their final reunion tours with surviving members.

Moreover, universal design measures benefit able-bodied people just as much as they benefit disabled people. If you’ve got kids, I bet you don’t like the prospect of getting a stroller down the stairs, especially if there’s snow and ice out. Moving in and out of places that employed universal design principles is light years easier than most of the places I’ve lived in, because who wants to get a queen-size bed down a flight of stairs? That connecting ramp will make your back cry in relief.

And who wouldn’t want to be able to sit down while cutting vegetables? If you’re just tired, being able to sit in your own kitchen and actually have room to prepare food could mean the difference between cooking something or hitting up Grubhub once more. If your kitchen aisles are also wide enough for a wheelchair user to navigate, that also means less potential for people to be standing on top of each other while in this room.

Variable-height fixtures and furniture are also integral to universal design standards so that people who are above or below average height can reach these items without needing a stepladder or excessively bending.

Universal Home Design Products

Common kitchen appliances

Even if the floor plan is not optimal for accessibility, appliances are a major part of making the home easily usable by anyone. Can they be easily used by anyone, and with low effort? Cooking a four-course dinner with knives and a whole Ninja set is obviously a ton of effort, but a range should have minimal finger use to really be considered universal design whether you got all four burners going or you’re just making a pot of mac and cheese.

Display numbers need to be large so no one is straining their eyes to read dials. If residents are visually-impaired, other considerations need to be made like if the appliance is easily identifiable by touch and has audio cues if they cannot see visual cues.

On that note, alarms aren’t always audible to the hearing-impaired so an alarm that has visual elements as well is more useful by universal design standards than one that relies on loud noises alone.

Pull-out shelves are also important features to have with appliances as well as storage, like cabinets and pantries.

There are miles of standards for universal home design, but these are some of the most critical features that both new homes and retrofitting jobs are taking into account. Ultimately, the appliances, furniture, and fixtures that you pick are up to you, and are easier and cheaper to swap out than an entire remodeling job if you need to change anything. While wheelchair users and people with mobility issues tend to come up the most with accessibility concerns, there are other disabilities to consider when deciding how to make your home more universally open and usable to all guests and household members.

Accessibility Does Not Have to Mean Compromising Aesthetics

Simply designed living room suitable for people with disabilities

A common misconception, both physically and when it comes to digital accessibility, is that retrofitting homes for accessibility means that you need to sacrifice all aesthetics and go for this sterile and utilitarian look. You definitely don’t!

While some considerations would have to be made according to your household’s needs, such as that clawfoot bathtub you always wanted having to be torn out to transform the area into a roll-in shower, you can still decorate the place however you see fit. Sometimes, appliances that meet the correct specifications for your needs might not be in the color you wanted, but it doesn’t mean that you have to compromise on your wall color, decorations, and other elements that speak to your style. It’s your sanctuary and refuge, not some depressing nursing home.

But just like how accessibility measures online don’t mean you have to sacrifice a beautiful and media-rich website to comply with the ADA, you don’t have to sacrifice the home design you always wanted just because a little retrofitting is needed.

As more people are aging in place, it will be interesting to see how new homes being built will surpass their older counterparts in terms of universal design.