In a recent search for a property to convert into a group home for the disabled, Simon looked for any house that could be made “visitable,” meaning that a person with impaired mobility could visit or live in the home, at least temporarily.
“I screened 800 houses on the computer and visited more than 100 and finally found two where it was economically feasible and reasonable to make it work,” she says.
To qualify as visitable, a house must have a no-step entry at the front, back or side, doorways with 32 inches of clearance and at least a half-bath on the main floor with enough room for a wheelchair.
For a person with disabilities to live comfortably in a home, it is generally necessary to go beyond visitability standards. To satisfy “universal design” standards — intended to provide everyone, regardless of age or ability, with maximum access and use — a house would also have bathroom features such as grab bars, a roll-in shower and enough floor space to turn a wheelchair around. There would be a main-level bedroom and a kitchen with easy-reach appliances and fixtures.
It is a huge challenge to find adapted houses, say people who advocate government visitability standards at least for new construction. A recent report published by the AARP Public Policy Institute says most existing single-family housing and the great majority of new houses have steps at all entrances and narrow interior doors, particularly bathroom doors.
Federal law “requires access for people with mobility impairments only to all new multifamily residences and to a small percentage (5 percent) of single-family units constructed with public funds,” the report says. The Americans with Disabilities Act generally does not apply to private housing.
The document shows a substantial and growing need. According to the latest census data, about 20 percent of Americans have a disability. By 2030, there will be more than 70 million seniors, “many of whom will have mobility issues,” the report says.
Simon, who is working with the Montgomery County Commission on People With Disabilities on legislation to require visitability in new housing, says people with disabilities “are forced into premature institutionalization or forced to modify their homes at great expense” because so few properties are available.
Marty Davis, 54, started Barrier Free Home three years ago because of long experience with the difficulty of finding accessible housing. While in the Navy in 1980, he was paralyzed in an accident. Afterward, he says, “trying to find an apartment or a house for a wheelchair [in Memphis] was terrible. There was zero” available and no information in the listings, he says.