We all want our homes to be warm and welcoming. We want our friends and relatives to be able to visit and have access to everything they need but what if your friend is in a wheelchair or uses a walker? Would the person be able to visit your home? Would he or she be able to enter the home, have access to the main floor and visit the bathroom? These are all important questions and sometimes we honestly have to respond, “No.” In the field of home accessibility, this is called visitability. Although it usually refers to indoor features, it can also refer to outside qualities of your home, too. Ideally, there should be total property access, not just the entrance or the first few feet inside.
Visitability is a very inclusive type of design – very close to universal design – that permits anyone of any age, size, or ability to approach, enter, maneuver, and enjoy a home from the curb to the rear property line. Not all homes can be visitable, but with some changes, others can. Sometimes, with some simple remediations, a home can be turned from inhospitable to visitable. There are three parts to examine – the approach (gaining entrance to the home), the inside and the back door and back yard area.
Gaining entrance into the home is called the approach. If a person parks on the street is there a curb cut-out and a smooth uninterrupted path to the driveway or front walk? The walkway to the porch or door should be smooth and even, not cracked, uneven, steep, slippery or obstructed by plants or leaves. Are there steps up to the front porch or door? If so, there should be handrails at the steps on both sides. The porch should ideally be covered and well-lite at night. A seat or bench should be available for sitting and the door handle should be a more accessible lever style (not round).
Once a person gains entrance into your home, the room arrangement should be open and unobstructed. Floor surfaces should be smooth but not slick. Remove throw rugs that can cause people to trip. How wide are your interior doorways? Older homes often have narrow halls and doorways. It is recommended that a 32” doorway be available at least to a bathroom on the main level of the home. Sometimes a more narrow doorway can accommodate a travel wheelchair. You should measure to make sure.
Once in the bathroom, is there an adequate turning radius for the wheelchair? Most bathrooms do not have the 5’ required. Does the toilet have a balance bar or a way for someone to get to a standing position? How about access to the sink and faucet? It is easier if there is a single control that can be operated by lifting and not round knobs to turn. There are so many items to consider. This is where a Certified Aging in Place Specialist can help. A home evaluation will reveal potential difficulties and the specialist will issue a list of recommendations.
During a recent webinar on visitability from the National Association of Home Builders, Steve Hoffacker (an accessibility expert) said that most homes are not visitable – especially before the front door. He also believes that to be truly inclusive, the home needs to be accessible not only at the entrance, but throughout the main floor and then to the backyard space as well (to gain access to pools, barbeques, gardens and outdoor seating areas where many celebrations are held). He has made it his life’s work to educate people on how making these improvements can contribute to their own safety, access, and enjoyment and that of their visitors and guests.
As we all age, we should consider who will be visiting our homes. Grandparents, parents, older relatives and people with different abilities will surely be coming to visit. Sometimes, with minor changes, homes can be made much safer and more accessible for everyone. Consider having a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) evaluate your home so you can find out what changes can be made. Experts can give you a range of possible remediations to improve your overall accessibility and customize the review for your budget and timeline. Consider if you are the person in need of accessibility. Wouldn’t you appreciate it if others made the effort to make sure you could continue to visit them?