When you or someone in your family has a disability, searching for an accessible home can be a major challenge. Most homes on the market aren’t designed or equipped for accessibility, and retrofitting a home with accessible options can be costly.
So, how do you navigate the journey into accessible housing?
When I was younger, my family moved into a house that was ill-equipped for my wheelchair-bound sister. It was a beautiful home in a scenic area, but the terrain was sloped, with a long gravel driveway and an elevated concrete back porch. There were two floors, but only the bottom level—a basement halfway underground—was wheelchair accessible.
Accessible housing looks different for everyone, but here are some changes our family made to make our home accessible so my sister could live her most independent life:
It would have been a Herculean task to widen the upstairs hallways and door frames, so we converted the finished basement into a bedroom and living area. What started as a large open space was easily sectioned off by installing sheetrock and wall paneling over a wooden frame.
We installed support bars on the new wall near her bed, making sure to anchor them so they couldn’t inadvertently be pulled out during use. We also found a support bar specially made for her bed that served equally as a safety barrier and a means to sit up in bed without someone else’s assistance.
Since my sister would spend the majority of her “inside time” in the living area, it was the most crucial space to prepare. To give her a plethora of activity options, we installed an entertainment center complete with a TV, VCR (am I dating myself here, folks?), and low-height shelving to keep games, books, and toys within close reach. We also moved in a small table for us to color and do puzzles together.
Fortunately, the downstairs bathroom was large enough to fit a wheelchair with room to spare, so our work in this space was minimal. Just like the bedroom, we installed a safety bar on the wall next to the toilet and installed a low sink for ease of use. Unfortunately, the shower space wasn’t large enough to install permanent seats or bars, so we had to purchase a portable shower chair skinny enough to fit inside. To finish it off, we installed a shower head with a detachable handheld option.
My sister rode to school in a bus equipped to safely transport disabled students, but our steep gravel driveway proved difficult—at times, even dangerous—for the driver to navigate. The most expensive of our projects, we swapped out the gravel for a concrete driveway and extended the concrete into a walkway that wrapped to the back of the house. With the addition of a wooden ramp we built, my sister was able to ride her wheelchair all the way onto the back porch without needing anyone to lift her up.
Tips for Finding Accessible Housing
Finding housing that’s built for accessibility can be a tall order. “It’s the biggest challenge in the industry,” says Florida real estate agent Sabrina Cohen. “It isn’t widely available and we have few resources in terms of finding options.”
Cohen is no stranger to the needs surrounding accessible housing, as a tragic car accident left a young Cohen paralyzed from the neck down. As an adult, she’s committed her life’s work to bring accessible options to public areas of Miami Beach and helping the disabled community find homes that promote their independence.
One of her top tips? “If I can’t find my clients a 100 percent accessible home, I tell them we should look for the closest thing to it so they can eliminate as many fixes as possible.”
Some helpful items to consider:
- If a ramp isn’t currently in place, can one be built?
- Are door frames wide and spaces open?
- Are countertops low enough to use easily?
Another option to help make a home more accessible is through smart home technology. Cohen explains, “as smart home technology goes more mainstream, the cost is more affordable now. It gives luxury and ease to any homeowner, but in the world of disability, it means more independence and freedom. It can turn on your lights, open your shades—the possibilities are endless.”
Some smart home options include:
- Digital devices like Amazon’s Echo that can do anything from turning on lights to climate control to calling for emergency help (features dependent on model).
- Security systems like Nest that alert you to visitors and package deliveries, and allow you to speak to people at your door.
- Smart TV’s that allow voice-controlled entertainment.
Want more info on accessible housing? Let us know what you want to hear more about in the comments below, and stay tuned! As your resident home experts, we’ve got more insights and ideas coming to help you or someone you love navigate the journey to more independent living.