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December 2005

by Mary Johnson

Let's build in access as we go

September 20, 2005 - Bradenton, Florida - Herald Tribune Already the homes are going up in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast.

Thousands of mobile and manufactured housing units are being hauled to sites. There's talk of a new federal agency to oversee the rebuilding of businesses and homes.

We saw the pictures of the evacuees. We saw the wheelchairs, the canes, the people lying on makeshift conveyances because they couldn't walk. We've heard the stories of the people trapped in their homes, disabled, unable to negotiate stairs to get out, or drowned, unable to climb to the attic.

Wake up, America. People need housing they can get in and out of.

Is anyone in the Katrina rebuilding effort giving any thought to this most basic design need -- the need for wheelchair access?

There's a growing movement in this country called "visitability."

"Visitable" homes are homes you can get into and out of in a wheelchair. The movement is powered by Atlanta wheelchair user Eleanor Smith, who started acting on the idea out of frustration that people who use wheelchairs can never visit other people's homes, even if they themselves might have a home they can get in and out of.

But all too often, when people are poor, their own homes are old and barrier-ridden as well. We have now seen the awful consequences of being unable to get out of one's home.

Smith says all new homes should simply be built with three modest, virtually no-cost features to make them "visitable":

  1. one "no-step" entrance,

  2. doorways and hallways wide enough to get through in a wheelchair, and

  3. one bathroom a wheelchair-user can get into.

The movement has gained steam in recent years. Because it's practically cost-free and because "visitable" homes look like any other new home, a number of communities now have visitability ordinances that require some or all new single-family homes to be built with these features. Tucson, Ariz., and Atlanta are two. Bolingbrook, Ill., has perhaps the most far-reaching visitability requirement in the nation. All of its thousands of new homes are visitable.

Visitability should be a requirement in the rebuilding of Katrina- devastated areas. Figures provided by the National Council on Disability, a federal agency, show that up to a quarter of the residents of New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., are considered by census figures to have disabilities; in New Orleans, 61 percent of that group are people 21 to 64.

The people who lost everything -- the ones needing the new housing -- were by and large from these populations. Yet if the past is any indication of the future, the most rudimentary basic-access requirements -- the ones spelled out by the visitability movement -- are again being overlooked. Why? There should be no clearer mandate for providing safe and accessible housing than the knowledge that so many people found themselves trapped in this last disaster.

"Inaccessible houses impede our lives," says Smith. The horrendous images from Katrina are certainly enough to more than confirm that.

Whatever it's called -- accessible housing, universal design, visitability -- basic access in all homes is an idea that's long overdue. We are taking about making all new housing basically accessible. This is not about creating "niche marketing" for "special populations."

It's about correcting current building practices, which have disabled people desperately seeking ways to manage in homes that have turned into virtual prisons.

The visitability movement has produced an Inclusive Home Design Act, now before Congress. But no federal law yet requires single-family housing to include basic wheelchair access.

Those rebuilding the Gulf Coast shouldn't need a federal law to act, though. They have a moral obligation.

Editor's Note: Mary Johnson is the editor of The Ragged Edge Online at, a wonderful source of disability rights information and opinion. Her latest book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve & The Case Against Disability Rights.