If you’re in the process of buying your very first home and you don’t have any physical limitations, why bother starting with a search for an accessible home featuring universal design? There’s actually no reason not to. But first, let’s consider your likelihood of ever needing an accessible home.

Accessible Housing

The day we’re born, every one of us has the opportunity to live to age 85 or longer. The lifestyles we create for ourselves (alcohol, smoking, being overweight or exercising diligently daily and eating healthy meals) will dictate how long we remain alive on this planet. The Council on Disability Awareness reports that a working age American will experience a long term disability every 7 seconds! Most are ill prepared when it happens. Over 36 million of our fellow Americans are today classified as “disabled.” That represents a startling 12 percent of the total population and the vast majority are not living in accessible homes.

Based on our efforts on the behalf of disabled people over three decades, there are certain commonalities to note. First and foremost, no one expects to become disabled. For the vast majority of Americans, most disabilities are a complete surprise. An automobile accident, your first heart attack, a sudden disabling stroke; almost always catches us off guard. Hence, it’s imperative you understand what to expect when you return home from the hospital.

We are all well aware that we never know what our tomorrows will bring. This is especially true as we pass through our different stages of life as our needs and physical capabilities are sure to change. When you and your spouse are living in the same home at the retired age of 75, you’ll be glad you bought your universal home when you were young and healthy. You won’t be restricted when it’s time to sell your home to anyone, regardless of their physical capabilities. Moreover, it’s less expensive to adapt a home today than remodeling decades from now. Although there aren’t yet long term reliable statistics on the value of homes with universal design features, we assume it can only increase the value as compared to houses with traditional design features.

We tend to make plans for today based on our married “mindset.” A most important factor for healthy married couples to consider today is to imagine life without your partner. One of you won’t always be here so what then?

Upon reviewing a “stack” of current publications on ‘Universal Design’ and ‘Accessible Housing’; I noticed a most serious omission. Consider the following: First and foremost, America’s senior citizens are the most likely generation to need accessible housing features. Moreover, men and women over age 85 are the fastest growing segment of the population. Homes today are still not being designed for an entire lifetime. Interestingly enough, I did a google search for “universal design” and “accessible housing” and found an extremely limited amount of up to date, reliable data. Since our senior population faces the greatest likelihood of frailty and being medically compromised while living on fixed incomes, they’re also most vulnerable financially.

To continue, becoming disabled necessitates the need for immediate access to reliable, current, well researched accessible information. Unfortunately this occurs while suffering from the psychological and physical impact of a new disability. In the midst of a health crisis is not the best time to be making important housing decisions.

As an aside, the internet’s search engines can be a wondrous source of a wealth of accessible resources. However, America’s seniors also happen to be the least computer literate segment of our population. At the same time, internet resources can become quickly outdated and are not always reliable. And there’s one other sad truth to face head-on. That is the news media frequently highlights stories of the elderly being taken advantage of and mistreated. So, for today, how do we best protect dis.gov’s readers as best we can? Who do we trust?

The “bottom line” is that America’s seniors need reliable, accessible housing information. They need it quickly and it absolutely must be trustworthy. If you’re not “computer savvy”, in doing my research on ‘Lifestyle Changes’, I found my local research librarians ENORMOUSLY HELPFUL.

Universal Design Principles

If you’re reading about universal design for the very first time, for today we’ll “keep it simple.” Plus, we’ll then refer you to a wealth of universal design resources many of which are available at the disability.gov website. Sound universal design principles start with:

“Barrier-free” to accommodate walkers and rooms that can accommodate the turning radius of wheelchairs.

Step free entrance make sure there’s at least one entrance to your home (front, back or garage door), that is step-free for a wheelchair.

Single floor living consider single-floor living or a first floor with a kitchen, living room, and especially a bedroom and bathroom both for you and certainly your guests. Doorways and hallways should be at least 36 to 42 inches wide so that appliances and furniture can be moved with ease.

“Appropriate” lighting in all livable areas (older eyes have difficulty adjusting from light to dark areas).

Physical support accommodations for grab bars, secure hand rails, etc.

“Safe” design – over 80 percent of deaths from falls happen amongst older adults with 2/3’s estimated to be preventable!

Modern design of household appliances – sink faucets, oven controls, lighting controls, etc.!

Adjusting heights to make often used spaces to minimize bending, lifting, kneeling, etc.

Lastly, there’s no “one size fits all” as the design for the impact of a multitude of specific physical conditions vary greatly. Restricted mobility, limitations from frailty, vision loss, etc. all require different adaptations.

Universal design makes your home more desirable for everyone, you and your visitors, regardless of age or ability, today or forty years from now. Very simply, you’ll be able to “age in place.” Your mom can still come to visit after she’s confined to a wheelchair.

Regardless of whether you’re disabled or not, young or elderly; accessible housing is for everyone as everyone should be able to “age in place.” The good news is that the disability.gov website has a wealth of current, reliable information on housing, accessible or not, at your fingertips.

Allan Checkoway
Copyright 2015

Accessible Housing for Everyone