What is Accessibility? Back »

Overview of Accessibility

Accessibility refers to considering the needs of people with disabilities during the design process. Often we think of ramps and automatic door buttons for people who use wheelchairs. While important, these items are only two examples of accessibility. Accessibility includes features that enhance a person’s ability to interact with the home, community, and technology. For example, people with visual impairments may use a screen reader when interacting with technology. A screen reader converts text on the screen to audio. The ability of screen readers to efficiently read websites is an example of accessibility. Without screen reader consideration during the design process, people with visual impairment may have a poor experience using technology.

Design Challenges

Accessibility has a reputation for being visually unappealing or sterile. We can hypothesize that this is the primary reason accessibility features are not more common. Who wants to live in a house that looks like a hospital? Who wants a plain text-based website for their business? Fortunately we have the creative capacity to build homes, communities, and technology that are both accessible and beautiful.

Below is a ramp featured in a contemporary art museum located in Finland. This ramp blends seamlessly into the design of the building. One would hardly say it looks like a sterile hospital.

Home Solutions

Accessibility taken to the extreme results in buildings and products specifically designed for people with disabilities. While necessary in some cases, most people with disabilities want to use the same products and spaces as everyone else without highlighting their disability. What’s more, specialized solutions can have a higher cost than mainstream solutions. Check out this TEDx Rapid City speech by Alice Brouhard to see how she used an iPad and two apps to give her daughter with traumatic brain injury the independence she desired. Ultimately allowing her to replace a $6,000 system.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Before moving on we should touch on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this is a civil rights law for people with disabilities. The ADA seeks to promote equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. Accessible design has been included in the ADA. However, compliance is context specific. Each section of the ADA must be applied on an individualized, fact-specific, case-by-case basis. In addition, privately owned housing is not included in the ADA (rental properties are included in the ADA).

How accessible is housing in America?

Aging in place is a goal for many people. Unfortunately, the home may be the number one barrier to achieving our goal. The vast majority of housing is missing one or more basic accessibility features.

Accessibility Feature Share of Units with Feature
No-step Entry 42.1%
Single-Floor Living 76%
Extra-wide Hallways and Doors 7.9%
Accessible Electrical Controls 44.1%
Lever-style Door Handles and Faucets 8.3%
Source: JCHS tabulation of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2011 American Housing Survey

Notice the percentage of homes with single-floor living (bathroom and bedroom on main floor) exceeds the number of homes with no-step entry. What this means is that even when a home has the option for single-floor living, steps to enter the building will require a ramp to be retrofitted to the building to achieve the aging in place goal.

Only 1 out of every 12 homes has extra-wide hallways and doors. What this means is that most homes cannot accommodate people who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Not only is this a consideration for our personal aging in place goals, our friends and loved ones who use either a wheelchair, a cane, a walker, or crutches may experience difficulties coming to our home for family gatherings. Not only are narrow doors and hallways a barrier to remaining independent, they can make it difficult for emergency service professionals to perform their duties. For example, stretchers are difficult to maneuver in small spaces.

Caregiver Insights

While in graduate school, I served as a professional caregiver in a group home for people with developmental disabilities. One of the people I served used a wheelchair. I had to be very conscious of where his hands were when going through doorways. The doors were so narrow that his hands could be injured. Assisting him in the bathroom was also extremely difficult because the space was so small that the wheelchair could not fit inside. My time serving as a caregiver confirmed my conviction that housing is critical for our health and safety as we age. What’s more, the people who care for us need an environment that is accessible.

Additional Accessibility Resources

Do you want to learn more about accessibility in the home? Please stay tuned to the What is needed for aging in place? series to learn more about specific features of our homes that have the largest impact on our independence.

Examples & Demonstrations

Readings & References

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