By Victoria Lanteigne, Program Manager for Corporate Partnerships and Training
As you walk through your city, town, or neighborhood, do you notice certain features that might help a person with a disability access their home or apartment building? You may have seen handrails along a ramp, elevators and lifts, or even pedestrian walkways with safe curb ramps and crosswalk signals. These features are the result of federal and local laws that mandate that certain homes and public areas be accessible to people with disabilities. You may then ask yourself, why are there still so many homes that remain inaccessible to people with disabilities?
Protecting the rights of people with disabilities with specific regard to accessible housing is primarily regulated by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Originally passed in 1964, the FHA was amended in 1988 to include protections for people with disabilities because Congress recognized that one of the largest obstacles facing the disability community was access to housing. In the FHA amendments, Congress required that all multifamily buildings (i.e., condos, apartments, dormitories, etc.) built after March 13, 1991, meet a “modest” level of accessibility.
While this law has significantly helped secure the rights of people with disabilities to accessible housing, a vast portion of the housing market is not bound by accessibility laws. Currently, there are no federal regulations that mandate detached single family homes or townhomes to be compliant with accessibility standards.
However, a recent movement, championed by Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change, seeks to address inaccessible single family homes and townhomes, so that people with disabilities can both live in these residences and, equally important, visit their friends, family and others at their homes. The “Visitability” movement, as Smith and her group coined it, seeks to require a very basic level of access to homes that would otherwise remain inaccessible. Visitability measures call for, at the very least, an entrance without steps that can be approached by an accessible route; passage doors that are wide enough for a wheelchair or scooter to enter; and at least a half bath/powder room on the main floor.
Champions of Visitability regulations boast the practicality of visitable housing not only for individuals with disabilities, but also for the elderly who could “age in place” if and when they need assistive devices to get around, and for families with children who use strollers. Experts have pointed out the relatively low cost to implement these changes (as low as $100 for a slab of concrete at an entrance), and when we compare it with the immeasurable improved quality of life for people with disabilities, Visitability seems like a no-brainer.
Despite all of these benefits, there are still hurdles for the movement. Housing developers need to be able to comply with a new set of accessibility laws, and provided with the information and resources about how to do so. There also need to be mechanisms in place to ensure that these regulations are actually followed.
Several localities have passed legislation with Visitability standards, including Atlanta, Georgia; Pima County, Arizona; Bolingbrook, Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; and the State of California. The movement has even made its way to the District of Columbia, where similar legislation is being considered. In testimony before the DC Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, ERC Executive Director, Don Kahl stated that, if passed, this law would be a good first step toward expanding the availability of housing with accessibility features for the more than 100,000 people with disabilities who live in the District, and the tens of thousands more who work in or visit the nation’s capital every month.
It is estimated that by 2050, one in every 3 families will have someone with a disability. When we look at the staggering statistics, it’s clear that the issue of Visibility is vital for disability rights groups and state and local governments alike. During the service life of virtually every new home, it will almost certainly be lived in, or visited by, someone with a disability—that is, if they can get in.
Categorized as Disability Rights, Fair Housing
Tags: accessibility, concrete change, disability rights, eleanor smith, fair housing, fair housing act, visitability