Visitability

Several years ago my aunt was in town. In casual conversation with my mom she asked, “So when are you going to downsize and move into a smaller house with less upkeep?”

My parents are in their early 70s, so it’s a valid question. But on hearing the question, every fiber of my being panicked at the thought.

My extreme emotional response took me off guard as I sat there in stunned silence. I don’t even remember how my mom answered the question.

On going back to my own place that evening, I tried to process why I had such an extreme reaction to a logical question.

Was it because the house had been my childhood home since I was 11?

No.

Maybe because of memories the house held?

No.

Then I realized that my parents’ home is the only house I can get into other than my own – in the entire city (with the exception of a few wheelie friends).

I can visit when I want to without pre-planning. I can stop by for dinner or a game of cards. It’s where we gather for holidays. And I can go to the bathroom without hassle.

The house is visitable.

 

Visitability

What is visitability? The concept behind visitability in architecture is pretty straightforward: “The term refers to single-family or owner-occupied housing designed in such a way that it can be lived in or visited by people who have trouble with steps or who use wheelchairs or walkers.”1

A house is visitable when the following three features are included:

  1. One entrance with zero steps
  2. The doors have 32 inches of clearance
  3. One bathroom on the main floor is large enough for a wheelchair

The important thing to note is that when building a house with these things in mind has a negligible effect on the cost. But the day the unexpected happens, the cost to modify an existing home with these basic features is astounding and can take months to complete.

 

Why Not?

Not too long ago, my neighborhood was notified that building was going to start on a new development of 46 garden homes behind my condo. I attended the community meeting.

The developer explained they were building a community for ages 55 and up – the growing population of people wanting to age and retire comfortably in their own home. When the drafts and blueprints were displayed, I was dumbfounded. At least three – if not more – steps were at every entrance.

Then the time for questions arrived. I held up my hand (in quadly fashion, of course).

“If these homes are for the aging community, why do you have no visitability or universal design elements included?”

The builder responded, “They can ask for it.”

Most people don’t know what to ask for. They don’t understand the need for these features in the future – outside of a possible ramp. They have never experienced the significant cost of modifications to a home when they are suddenly needed. Unless someone has had a close relationship with a friend or family member with a disability, people don’t think about these things.

 

The Benefits

I believe architects, home builders and homebuyers need to be educated on the benefits of visitability and universal design (see below). These features do no harm – and benefit even those without disabilities. How? When’s the last time you saw a parent trying to get a stroller up steps and into a house? The biker who carries his cycle inside between rides? The delivery person climbing five steps with boxes?

Visitability benefits everyone.

 

For All of the ABs Out There

To anyone reading this who is able-bodied (AB), please realize you are more accurately defined as a TAB: Temporarily Able-Bodied. At any moment you could be one of the millions in need of modified housing, either temporarily or permanently. Accessible housing does not exist. Read my experience of moving out on my own in Home Sweet Accessible Home.

If you are building, why not add these basic features now, rather than once the unexpected happens causing stress and financial strain to an already difficult situation?

In addition, I might just be able to come over and watch your kids or play a game or have dinner with you.

It’s a win-win situation.

 

The Difference Between Visitability and Universal Design

Universal design has much higher standards than visitability.

Universal Design (UD) is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It is a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation. It creates products, systems, and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.2

 

References

1Visitability: http://visitability.org/

2Universal Design: https://universaldesign.org/definition

Jenny

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