Stuck In A Moment

Anyone who has ever been seriously injured and had to deal with mobility issues while recovering – be it handling crutches, casts, or been confined to a wheelchair – comes to realize pretty quickly that cities and buildings are not designed with those mobility challenges in mind. I can attest to that: eight years ago I was hit by a van while crossing the road and among the litany of injuries was a severely broken leg. After eventually getting out of the hospital I was faced with the daunting task of using a wheelchair to get around town and, worse, up to my third-floor apartment accessible only be stairs. This experience forever gave me an appreciation for the trials many encounter navigating the built environment, from uneven sidewalk surfaces to bathroom access to stairs (which are the leading cause of serious falls among community-living elderly, accounting for about one-third of all fatal falls).

As the residential sector evolves to meet the changing needs and wants to shifting demographics, mobility is always something that seems secondary to most people’s minds. That is, until mobility is taken away from us. And eventually, it always is. Yet this inevitability doesn’t seem to change the way housing structures are built. We still have a housing industry unprepared to meet the needs of the growing aging population, and therefore a lack of housing stock in Canada with basic accessibility features or built to be adapted for the needs of residents over the lifetime of a house. Home structures are, quite simply, hostile to those with mobility difficulties, and there exists widespread architectural barriers for visiting relatives or friends who use mobility devices.

Issues like this are why people like Eleanor Smith are important. In 1986, Smith and a group of advocates for people with disabilities introduced the concept of VisitAbility to North America when they launched an initiative called “Concrete Change” that was intended to make a new community in Atlanta, Georgia, being developed by Habitat for Humanity, inclusive for people with physical disabilities. They realized that although some of the houses in the community were planned to be accessible for residents with physical disabilities, these people would not be able to visit their neighbours in the community due to stairs at the entrance and inaccessible bathrooms. Concrete Change suggested that Habitat for Humanity apply a set of basic accessibility features in every home in the housing project. Hence the VisitAbility Project was born, and it is one of several programs at work in Western countries that share similar goals of one day dictating that all buildings are rendered as universally accessible as possible, and the prime candidate they are focusing the majority of their culture-changing efforts on is the residential sector.

These are not unrealistic goals: in fact, when VisitAbility features are planned at the outset, additional costs are minimal, varying from negligible amounts to several thousand dollars. And it is more than just the elderly that benefit from these considerations: think those with young children in strollers, for example. And reducing injuries to older people and young children means reduced use of acute care hospitals and rehabilitation facilities.

In many respects what we are talking about is integrating tenets of universal design in new residential construction, since one of the goals of universal design is to maximize the usability of environments. This would be equally important to Millennials looking at micro-condo units smaller than a two-car garage, Boomers looking for creative new storage space in the multi-family housing they are downsizing to, or those  with mobility challenges who just want to comfortably live in their own space.

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