Building And Designing Homes For People With Disabilities

Real Estate

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a law 1990, it ensured legal rights across a variety of areas from employment to education, transportation and public accommodations in commercial buildings. While it addressed many major issues, one area where people with disabilities and their families continue to struggle is being able to live comfortably in their own homes. 

While there are standards to make private homes accessible, that doesn’t necessarily ensure 100% accessibility because every person with a disability has unique needs. Furthermore, these needs can change over time.

An Issue For Veterans

It’s an unfortunate reality that many veterans become injured during their service. Their lives are completely changed on a number of levels. Luckily, there are organizations such as Homes For Our Troops that build and donate homes to help this population.

The organization’s building requirements exceed ADA compliance and offer more than 40 major special adaptations to provide full accessibility. Some examples include lower countertops, roll under sinks, pull-down shelving, wider doorways, automatic doors, and roll-in showers.

“Many of our veterans use wheelchairs full time or wear prosthetics but prefer to use their wheelchairs at home. Most traditional homes are not wheelchair accessible, so many of the veterans are forced to wear their prosthetics for most of the day, which can be painful, or they are limited in what they can do within the home,” says Homes For Our Troops President and CEO Brigadier General (USA, Retired) Tom Landwermeyer.

The organization also provides additional amenities for recovery support such as therapy tubs, digital water temperature control, and dual zone HVAC systems to help with heat sensitivity due to limb loss.

Landwermeyer sees these homes as springboards to help rebuild lives. “Once these veterans receive their homes, they are empowered to continue to reach their goals and ambitions such as returning to school, pursuing careers, and starting/expanding families,” he says.

Interior Design And Accessibility

ADA compliance is only the first step to ensure accessibility. While many think about the interior design process as something that is just about attractive aesthetics, making rooms flow and choosing textiles, it has a very different impact for people with disabilities.

Wayfair recently collaborated for the second time with Homes For Our Troops to design a home for Marine Lance Corporal John Curtin and his family. Maggie Finnegan, who is the brand’s director of corporate social responsibility states, “It’s an honor to help welcome veterans home and provide them and their family with a space that’s been thoughtfully designed and styled to meet their specific needs, allowing them to live comfortably in a home they love.” 

After becoming a Marine at age nineteen, Curtin was injured a month into his first deployment. An explosion resulted in the loss of both his legs and severely injured his right forearm. While recovering at Walter Reed, he met his wife Brittany. They became parents to their daughter, Ashlyn, in 2017.

Wayfair’s style director Tara Donovan worked with the Curtin family to design and furnish every room in their 2,800 square foot home. For these kinds of projects, she shares that every aspect must be approached from a functional standpoint, beginning at the floorplan to the scale of the furniture, finishes, and materials.  “When designing an accessible space that’d specifically adapted to meet someone’s physical needs, it’s important to look for incorporate ways that will make the client’s daily routine a little easier.”

Donovan started by developing a floor plan that allowed for unobstructed circulation. Then it came time to choose the furniture. “Every piece of furniture selected had to add purpose to the space, so if it wasn’t functional it didn’t make the cut.”

Pieces were sourced with the goal of alleviating some of Curtain’s mobility restrictions. For example, the dining table has a pedestal base with an extended breadboard leaf. “This provides a ledge with enough clearance for a wheelchair to access without the obstruction of table legs,” Donovan explains.

Flooring is also important for people who use prosthetics and wheelchairs. The home was designed with low pile carpet because moving from one surface to another in a chair can often require strenuous effort. This surface provides a seamless transition. However, it’s worth noting that many people who use wheelchairs prefer hard flooring. 

The Reality Of Living With A Disability

However, veterans aren’t the only population with this problem. Caitlin Givens and her husband Charles Porter are parents to two children, one of whom has special needs. They live in a three-story row house in Washington D.C. So, carrying their daughter up the stairs every day is a way of life.

Space is also at a premium. “We completely gave up the idea of a living room and got rid of our coffee table to make room for a dedicated therapy/play space. Her equipment is all over the house and we trip over it all the time,” Givens explains. 

They know their current living situation won’t work for them in the long term. Ideally, they’d like to buy a house with a first-floor bedroom and an ensuite bathroom. It would also have a separate space for their daughter’s medical supplies and therapy equipment.

However, finding a home to meet their needs is easier said than done. They’ve been actively looking, but the housing market is tight. Moving to a different location isn’t an option because of the medical benefits offered in D.C. But this situation is hardly unique. For families with children who have special needs, it is all par for the course. 

Retrofitting To Increase Value

However, injury, disability and special needs aren’t the only reasons why homes need to made accessible. The inevitability of aging creates a necessity to retrofit older homes. Jenny Naughton, Executive Vice President of Chubb Personal Risk shares, “For more than 10,000 Baby Boomers who turn 65 each day and the 72% of homeowners who recently told Chubb that they want to remain in their home as they age, there are a number of accessibility impediments located throughout the home.” 

While some projects can be completed inexpensively, such as adding shower bars, it may be worth it for some homeowners to invest in larger scale renovations. Accessible features can actually increase the value of a home. Some examples of this include hard flooring, wider doorways, compliant bathrooms, and having electrical outlets moved to be within reach.

“Having an accessible home can be a desirable selling point for homebuyers. Knowing that they won’t have to subsequently make renovations can entice them to pay full or above asking price, if your home is in on the market,” says Naughton.

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