Mary Blythe can still visit her relatives during the holidays. For now.
But the retired social worker can imagine a time when she won't be able to. "The way things are going, it's in the picture that some day I might not be able to make it for Christmas or Thanksgiving, which would be sad," said Blythe, 86, of Lawrence, who gets around with the help of a walker but may eventually have to rely solely on her motorized scooter.
So she was thrilled recently to hear about the "visitability" movement, which advocates making homes more accessible for those with disabilities. This is particularly important during the holidays, when many of us will be hosting relatives who are elderly or have a disability.
Dot Nary, a research associate at the Kansas University Research and Training Center on Independent Living, says that the more accessible our homes are the less isolated people with disabilities will feel. "This really is a health issue," said Nary, who recently addressed a meeting of the Kaw Valley Older Women's League on the topic. "We're all healthier when we're socially connected."
To research the issue of visitability, she recently talked to more than a dozen wheelchair users: There was the mother who was unable to go on play dates or birthday parties with her young child; the guy who hadn't visited his sister's house in decades; the man who could only meet friends in public spaces like coffee shops and said, that, consequently, his social interactions ended up feeling more businesslike than personal.
"One of the things I didn't expect to hear is it's a very difficult topic to discuss," Nary said. "A lot of times those conversations don't even happen." More than 80 percent of study respondents said they just don't bring it up.
Nary knows about this issue from experience, having been in a wheelchair for almost 28 years because of spina bifida. "Your ability to visit others is determined by where they live," she said. "If I have a friend in a second-floor apartment or who has six steps to get into their house, that's not something I can do. Your world starts to be limited by the barriers you encounter."
It isn't that difficult to make your residence more visitable, advocates say. It might mean having a portable ramp, or even just a piece of plywood, on hand. Or making sure pathways in the home are clear of belongings and decorations. Or sending guests cellphone photos of the layout of your house to find out whether they'll be able maneuver it.
"If there's enough communication ahead of time, sometimes a more fully accessible location can be chosen," said Bob Mikesic, deputy director and advocacy coordinator at Lawrence-based Independence Inc., which provides accessibility assessments for homes and businesses. He noted that another easy solution is to identity alternative, accessible entryways, like the garage or backdoor.
But Mikesic, who also uses a wheelchair, said the way to truly alleviate this problem is to change new building standards so that all homes are considered visitable (at least one accessible entrance and bathroom on the main level, wide passage doors); Nary hopes to get that effort underway soon at the city or county level.
When Ranita Wilks, a wheelchair user from Lawrence, goes to her cousin's house for Christmas she relies on relatives to carry her inside. "You kind of hope no one has been in the holiday cheer yet so you can safely get up the steps and into the home," said Wilks, an independent living skills specialist at Independence Inc.
Once she gets in, though, her problems aren't over. The bathroom is pretty small, so she tries not to drink a lot of fluids. At many homes, she's not even that lucky: Bathroom doors are often so narrow she has to make sure there's a public restroom close by.
That's why she says it's important for those with disabilities to plan ahead and not be afraid to speak up. "Every individual with a disability has to become an advocate for themselves," Wilks said. "No one can understand your needs better than you can."
Blythe, meanwhile, plans to visit relatives in Lawrence this Christmas (she already has their presents bought and wrapped under her tree — no spoilers!) When she gets there, her teenage nephews, as is tradition, will carry her walker and help her up the front step. However, the holidays are about the only time of the year when she still goes to loved ones' houses.
"You'd like to visit people and visit their homes," she said the other day at her Babcock Place apartment, her parakeet, Chico, chirping in the back of the room. "But most of the time it's impossible if they don't have a ramp or there's steps or a porch."