Correction to This Article
A Feb. 18 Real Estate article on making bathrooms accessible misquoted Takoma Park architect John P.S. Salmen on the subject of the minimum width of a doorway. The quotation should have read: "The width of the door also depends on how you go in. If you can go straight through the door, without having to make a turn, then I personally think you can get through a 30-inch clear-width door."

Adapting Your Home To Maximize Mobility

John Canning, whose multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1990, modified his master bathroom to accommodate his wheelchair.
John Canning, whose multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1990, modified his master bathroom to accommodate his wheelchair. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

Stephen Bennett doesn't need a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. But the president and chief executive of United Cerebral Palsy has lots of friends and professional acquaintances who do and says "when I have friends over, I want them to be able to go to the bathroom in my house."

Bennett, though, has found the process of getting one frustrating. "I spent a year trying to find a townhouse in Dupont Circle where I could make the main floor visitable," and during the search, "my Realtor went berserk," he said.

Bennett eventually found a 100-year-old house that could be outfitted with a ramp to the back door, but his plan to tackle the first-floor bathroom was delayed by contractor problems and pressing repairs. An architect's estimate that fully modifying the powder room would cost $9,000 "also kind of stopped me in my tracks," he said.

Still, the District resident is determined to do the project soon: "I'm willing to pay to open up the doorway and put in grab bars because I want people to be comfortable when they come here. In today's world, as a practical matter, what most people do is find a private space and set up a urinal pot because it's so hard to use the bathrooms. But I just want it to be better."

Bennett has run into a problem that many Americans may find familiar.

As baby boomers hit their sixties, many are learning that even something as simple as getting into their own bathrooms becomes quite difficult if they suddenly need a wheelchair to get around.

There are "more than 54 million Americans living with disabilities, an aging population expected to reach 70 million by 2030 and baby boomers concerned about finding homes they can grow old in as an alternative to nursing homes and retirement communities," James E. Williams Jr., president and chief executive of Easter Seals, said last summer in a statement advocating accessibility. His call for action came on the 15th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Easter Seals and the Century 21 real estate firm have put together a checklist and resource guide for making homes accessible. Other guides are being published nationally and locally, because virtually none of America's houses were built to accommodate those on wheels.

Even lately, during the age of the mega-mansion, new homes aren't being built to make it easy for wheelchair users. Not even in active-adult communities. Sometimes doorways and hallways in new construction are wider than the standard 30 and 36 inches, but not as a rule. New higher-end homes, though, sometimes offer the potential for widening doorways and later adding features such as roll-in showers or elevators.

The situation is something of a paradox: At the same time that most builders resist adding "aging in place" features to new houses, most older Americans are saying they want to grow old at home. About 84 percent of AARP members surveyed last year said they want to remain at home as long as possible. About 87 percent, however, acknowledged that their homes will not meet their needs as they grow older.

And small bathrooms are a sizable part of the problem, accessibility experts say. If a wheelchair user can't fit into the bathroom, or there's not enough room for a user and an attendant, or a way to carve space from other rooms, it can mean moving to a new home or to alternative care.

The good news, those who specialize in accessible design say, is that small bathrooms can be modified without spending a fortune to accommodate many situations, although modest changes may not allow full accessibility for every type of disability. And the better news, they say, is that the more interest there is, the more the home building industry may respond.

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