To boldly go

People visiting on the porch
The author (right) enjoys a visit on a neighbor’s porch thanks to its lack of barriers.

My neighbor Pete and I are hanging out on his front porch when two visitors walk by on the path. Pete calls out a greeting and they end up sitting on the porch chatting with us for half an hour.

Nothing unusual here – except it wasn’t that long ago that I was hardly ever on anyone’s porch but my own. When our community, East Lake Commons, held its first formal meeting in 1997, one of the first official decisions was that all the units would be designed with two features making each home “visitable” by members with mobility impairments: at least one entrance with zero steps, and at least a half-bathroom on the main floor, with a door wide enough for wheelchair passage.

Removing the barriers

That’s made a lifechange for me. As a wheelchair-using kid in the ‘50s, then as a house-hunting and friend-making adult in the ‘70s and ‘80s, very rarely could I go in anyone’s house except my own without a lot of planning, physical effort and social awkwardness to get up the entry steps. Once inside, I had to take care not to drink much liquid, since nearly all residential bathroom doors – including the tens of thousands being constructed at this moment – are too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through. These barriers made friendships harder to make, and also cut me off from some of the casual, vital information-sharing that goes on among people hanging out together.

Now, 10 years after that first formal meeting and 7 years after moving into the community, my visiting pattern has been transformed. The past few months have found me at Bob’s house playing Scrabble; at Lonnie’s delivering a meal when she came home from the hospital; at the Chen-Willoughby’s for a cello and piano concert; at Jenny and Jason’s for a committee meeting; at Anne’s for tea… These ordinary visits call to mind a saying some unknown disabled change-worker coined years ago: “To boldly go where everybody else has gone before.”

Creating visitability everywhere it is feasible fits naturally with the cohousing movement’s goals and tone. The movement has also turned out to be a wonderful way to spread the word about visitable housing. As with most cohousing communities, many interested groups come here to East Lake Commons each year specifically to learn about cohousing (and, in our case, about organic gardening). Whenever possible, we distribute our two-page visitability handout. Meanwhile, since promoting visitability is my chosen work, we have had dozens of architects, planners, disability- and aging-related groups, and others come to East Lake Commons specifically to learn about visitability, where they end up learning about cohousing as well.

Mom with stroller
Visitability’s zero steps into a home also benefits moms and young residents.

Cost-effectiveness

Building new homes with basic access is usually extremely cost effective. The entrances and wider doors at East Lake Commons added no cost to the construction and may have lowered the overall cost because omitting the porch steps meant less concrete was used. The earth is gently graded so the sidewalk ties directly into the porch. In cases where land availability for units is extremely tight, some pinches between affordability and total visitability may need to be worked out, but in general it is very do-able. Chuck Durrett gives good attention to the issue in his recent senior cohousing book and many others in cohousing circles are attentive and knowledgeable as well.

Some people mistakenly think that a unit’s entrance must be at the front, but in fact a back or side entrance may work best on some hilly terrain. Another misperception is that although zero-step entrances are easy when building on a concrete slab, they inevitably are difficult and costly when building over a basement or crawl space. In fact, methods have been devised for new houses with basements that cost less than $300 more than the conventional construction that causes the entrances to be high above grade. My organization, Concrete Change, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting visitability, offers a free PowerPoint download on constructing attractive, low-cost zero-step entries.

What “do-overs” would we wish for at East Lake Commons? Probably a few more low-cost, useful universal design features in each house. (Our project was more developer-driven than most and not all our wishes received an open ear.) Our wishlist would include several more single-story units, and then on the main floor in as many of the multilevel units as possible, a full bath instead of a half-bath as well as a bedroom or space that could be converted to a bedroom. Those features would let a home continue to welcome its residents even if disability happens through illness, accident or aging.

Several U.S. cohousing communities besides ours have incorporated complete or near-complete visitability and have gone further with aging-in-place features. At least one community overlooked visitability in their first phase because it was uncommon at the time and not on people’s minds then. Later they found that the needed retrofitting would be extremely expensive; the community is now incorporating basic access in its new construction phase. If your cohousing project is at a stage where construction is not yet cast in stone, think visitability and “aging in place.”

Eleanor Smith has used a wheelchair since having polio as a small child. She worked as a counselor and a teacher of ESL for 25 years before starting her nonprofit, Concrete Change. The Concrete Change network encompasses several thousand advocates across the USA working for basic access to become as routine as plumbing and wiring in a new home. She and her friend Barbara helped form East Lake Commons cohousing near Atlanta and were among the first residents to move in, eight years ago.

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