Reaching for the Stars (And the Coffee Cups)

Our family first became aware of which buildings, homes, stages, and other venues are wheelchair accessible when the youngest member took up harp. This is a heavy, delicate, and awkward instrument to move, and it is best done on a specialized dolly. Wheels. You use wheels.

We discovered which routes to take to safely enter a building avoiding stairs, where the elevators are, and which spaces are too tight to turn a harp around. We bought a vehicle based on how well it carried a harp with passengers. Awareness is the first step toward enlightenment. We started to ‘get’ the problems that people with various physical limitations face in public and at home.

By now, Americans have figured out that people in wheelchairs need ramps and sight-impaired people need braille within reach. But there are also circumstances that require less than a full-on home remodel to help an elderly parent age in place, or help a teenager with a broken leg survive for a few months in her two-story home.

Many people consider these possibilities when building a new home, or designing a remodel. It helps if you have planned at least one bedroom/bathroom for the first floor, if you have at least one outside door that does not involve a step down onto a yard or walkway, and if you have enough mid-level storage that someone who is not in a position to reach either high or low can retrieve the necessities. Mentally walk through the home to see if it will accommodate friends in wheelchairs or using walkers.

Turning radius, width of doorways, levelness of floor/ground, and storage/work/bathroom areas that accommodate a seated person are the really big considerations for a wheelchair user. Levelness of floor and storage that can be accessed by a person on crutches or a walker are crucial for someone healing from an accident or surgery. Written characters that are large enough and high-contrast enough for dimming vision, a smoke detector made for hearing impairment, toilet seats on risers, wider doorways, even flooring, and storage accessible from knee level to shoulder height can keep a senior in her home longer than a house that does not have these features.

There are so many sites that will help you understand accessibility considerations at home, and I have pulled up a few to get you started.

The Design Book from Paralyzed Veterans of America

Accessible Home Design

Checklist from ‘Mobility Management’

A Dreamy Wheelchair Accessible Apartment

Women playing harp and violin
Two of the musical residents in our decidedly inaccessible home- we had portable ramps for all the step-ups and step-downs, the front walkway, the front porch, ad infinitum

Some builders will add support inside walls where grab bars can be installed in the future. They will design a bathroom with a roll-in shower and a toilet that has room for a wheelchair to pull up alongside, even if you don’t need these features at this time. When these features are designed in from the beginning they are often not noticeable as special accessibility features, and they have more appealing aesthetics than rooms that have been retrofitted after the need arises. If you are working with a builder to create a new, accessible home, make sure that the builder’s specifications actually meet your needs! A few inches can make the difference between a usable and an unusable space for you.

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