KU experts publish new guide for making homes visitable by wheelchair users
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Dot Nary uses a powered wheelchair, but she wasn’t thinking of herself when she began working on a guide for making homes more accessible for those with mobility issues.
Nary was thinking of her 88-year-old friend who had gone from using a walker to a power chair. She no longer could get into a relative’s home and join her family for Thanksgiving dinner.
For Nary’s friend and anyone wanting to be inclusive with their guest lists, she helped create “Making Homes Visitable” with Brenna A. Buchanan Young and Val Renault, researchers with the Research & Training Center on Independent Living on the University of Kansas campus.
They wanted the 32-page booklet to be a resource guide for wheelchair users to be included in the homes of friends and family.
“We’re not talking about complete accessibility — just going to a party or having dinner,” said Nary, an assistant research professor at the center.
The booklet is not about taking major remodeling steps and spending a lot of money to achieve accessibility standards required for public buildings by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Instead, it suggests such things as making sure pathways to the front door are accessible. If not, it offers suggestions such as simply putting down a flat cardboard appliance box for the wheelchair to roll over, or finding one entrance into the home where a sheet of plywood could be used as a ramp for a temporary accessible entrance.
Nary is suggesting making minor modifications to enable visiting for a limited period of time — that’s why she uses the term “visitable.” According to the booklet, visitability is a residential design concept that includes minor accessible features for new single-family homes.
“The success of the visitability movement is largely attributed to the simplicity and achievability of three key features – an accessible entrance, accessible interior pathways and one usable bathroom,” Nary said.
It’s vital, she added, because of a growing population of people using wheelchairs, thanks in part to life-saving techniques allowing people to survive traumatic spinal cord injuries.
Paramount for all people using wheelchairs is their ability to live in the community, be social and have relationships. Nary knows this firsthand. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal column, she experienced decreasing mobility; by the time she was 30, she was using a wheelchair. That was 32 years ago.
“People with disabilities come from all walks of life,” Nary said.
Spending time together is important for people of all ages, Nary said, and being excluded can bring discouragement, which can lead to depression.
“People with disabilities do have a higher level of depression,” Nary said, especially if they become isolated.
“Dealing with that sense of isolation that you are not fully participating in the community or you’re not able to participate as you used to is important to address,” she said. “So that’s one of the goals of this booklet — to look at how people can participate in their communities and families in relationship to each other so they feel less isolated from society.”
The booklet addresses those issues, and the importance of communicating.
Some people using a wheelchair might worry that, if they bring up the topic of home barriers, it may be taken as a criticism of the home. Nary emphasized that’s why it’s important to talk about it, though it might be an uncomfortable topic. The booklet includes discussion questions that can help to make visits happen.
“It begins with a frank discussion about home barriers and access needs. Being open can help in understanding what barriers might impede the guest and how to remove them,” Nary said.
The booklet also includes worksheets for preparing for the visit, which the authors hope will bring up discussions about the needs of the visitor, as well as guidance for removing barriers.
Nary spoke with a mother using a wheelchair who said she couldn’t go to any of the parties her young son was invited to because the homes were not visitable. She couldn’t meet the parents.
“A lot of times, it’s about having a conversation,” Nary said.
“It’s a way to get people talking to make visits happen,” Renault said.
The booklet is available to download through the center’s website at rtcil.org.
3 tips for removing barriers
• Most visits begin with parking. It’s important to make sure where the guest parks is not too far from the accessible entrance to the house. If it is, can this distance be shortened? Consider that a guest who drives a van with a ramp may need as much as 8 feet of space on the passenger side of the vehicle to put the ramp down and exit safely.
• If there is an uneven pathway to the entrance or if the surface is not firm or made of gravel or has grass, a temporary remedy is to use large pieces of cardboard from an appliance store.
Also keep the pathway clear of objects, such as trash cans, plants and debris.
• If you need a ramp for entryway steps, it’s important that the slope of the ramp will not be too steep. Although a piece of plywood will work, there are threshold ramps that can be purchased at home improvement stores.
— “Making Homes Visitable”