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Accessible Home Design for People With Disabilities

Daniel Bortz

For many, living with a disability or a physical limitation that occurs late in life is a daily struggle. These challenges are magnified if a home's design restricts mobility. In some houses and apartments, every door, hallway or bathroom contains blockades that make the living space dangerous or simply uninhabitable.

Eight out of 10 people ages 45 and older say they want to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible, according to a recent survey by AARP. As average life expectancy increases and more baby boomers enter retirement, the desire to "age in place" continues to increase--augmenting the importance of accessible home design. Architect Deborah Pierce says homeowners and architects need to work together to tackle this issue.

Pierce, author of "The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities," has practiced architecture in Newton, Mass., for more than 30 years. Today, she uses her specializations of residential remodeling and accessibility of public buildings to design unobstructed homes. U.S. News spoke with Pierce about common flaws in traditional home design, the rewards of working with clients with disabilities, and why accessible renovation isn't only wheelchair-driven. Excerpts*:

Can you describe what the process is like when working with a client who has a disability?

It's a visualization process. We as architects are big-picture thinkers. We draw a plan based on what homeowners express they want and we help them visualize alternatives. I think the design process is one of give and take and one of presenting alternatives and helping the client understand their requirements, which is a matter of listening and asking questions. I think architects serve their clients best when they create a process that is a partnership--where the clients are making choices that reflect their interests, their lifestyle and their budget.

Are homeowners with a disability more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by contractors?

The stakes are high for a homeowner who has a disability. A bathroom you can't bathe in just doesn't work. Also, people with disabilities do things uniquely. The simple act of brushing your teeth or making a cup of coffee can be something that's unique to the person, depending on what their abilities are.

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I think that's what makes this so exciting for a designer, is we have to go into the situation knowing we don't know how it will turn out. We can't assume that the shower we just built for one disabled client will work for this one because there are so many variables: how long their arms are, how they like to sit, how well they can support themselves and whether they're stronger on one side of their body over the other.

What are the most common accessibility features installed in a home?

The biggest one, I would say, is making a wider path of travel. Now, there are a lot of ways you can do that. I line up doors so that it makes it easy to go through rooms without zigzagging.

Another common accessibility improvement is putting a full bathroom on the first floor. However, I find that people don't like to talk a lot about grab bars yet everybody is interested in them. I think grab bars have a bad connotation for many people--you can call them "safety handles" instead--but making a bathroom safer is really about being sure you have something to grab onto if you think you're going to lose your balance.

What advice do you have for people who can't afford to install some of those importance features, like a first-floor master bedroom and bathroom?

I would say they need to compare the costs of a renovation project with the cost of making do. A lot of times, what seems unaffordable becomes affordable. There are medical costs associated with accidents, especially when people fall in the bathroom. If you have to pay an [aide] to help with bathing and shaving or you're buying a lot of gadgets to make it easier to use the bathroom independently, then renovating your bathroom saves all of those costs.

The kitchen is another big renovation people don't want to pay for, but if you're getting takeout every night because you can't cook in your kitchen, it may be worth the cost of a renovation.

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What about for customers who set a budget for renovating their home and don't want to adjust it to pay for features that would provide easier mobility?

Choosing to do something in a less costly manner is something we might regret later on. So I say the budget should be reasonable and somewhat flexible, instead of "What are you going to charge us in order to do this?" You should prioritize the work and price it out in pieces, so that you have some latitude in meeting your budget.

In the book, you describe a home as a place where people can retreat when they need protection or simply a place where they're free to express themselves. Do people with physical disabilities view a home differently?

I think everyone looks at it as an environment as having barriers or opportunities, but certainly the barriers would be different and the opportunities would be different for someone with a disability. I say an accessible home removes barriers and creates opportunities.

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What are some of the areas people neglect when making their house more accessible?

Utility spaces. Laundry rooms. Storage areas. Mudrooms. Closets. Dog-walking and dog-washing space--many people with a disability will have a guard dog or guide dog, so making an accessible space for pet care is important.

How rewarding is it to help someone with a disability with your designs?

It's always a good feeling knowing you can make a client's life easier. I save letters from my clients. They say things like, "Your design brings us together as a family." I find that to be a lot more rewarding than when I was making sure public buildings--courthouses, libraries or hospitals--were accessible.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

When I started this book, I expected to see a lot of high-tech renovations, but it's really the low-tech devices that work. Good, accessible design isn't about gadgets--it's about choosing the right products and installing them properly so that they don't break.

*Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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