057: Visitability

Good Fit Poor Fit
Good Fit Poor Fit
057: Visitability

Show Notes:

The following 5 video interviews are all referenced in this episode. They’re each rather lengthy but feel free to check them out!

Don and Donna Shiflet
Max Quillen + Jo Chan
Tiffany McManus
Daniel Barnhart
Mike and Dana Ritter

Two previous podcast episodes referenced in this episode:

#48: Summer Vacation

#52: Temporary Disabilities


Sarah:  You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:31] Hi listeners. I’m glad to have you back for another episode in our Candid Conversation series, in which we hear from some people who were interviewed a while back about design and disability. Lauren and Sally have been combing through these interviews and have been creating podcasts based on themes that were common between a lot of our participants.

[00:00:51] Lauren, why don’t you introduce us to what we’re going to chat about today?  

[00:00:55] Lauren:  If you tuned in to some of our more recent podcasts, you will have noticed we are incorporating some soundbites from the Universal Design Project interviews from 2017 and 2018, which are available to listen to in their entirety on YouTube and you can find these in the link in our show notes. 

[00:01:11] But before we get into today’s topics, I want to share about a concept you may have come across on your journey to finding out about universal design or The Universal Design Project, and this term is visitability. Visitability is defined as a home construction movement for the building of all new homes, with specific features that can make the home easier for those with a mobility impairment to live in and visit. The three main criteria for visitability are: inclusion of a zero step entrance, doors with 32 inch clear passage spaces and at least one bedroom and bathrooms on the main floor that is accessible by a wheelchair.   Of course when correctly building a universally designed home, a home would include these three aspects along with so many other components that are accessible, not only to someone with a mobility impairment, but are also functional for all people to the greatest extent possible.

[00:02:07] If you think your home could be accessible for anyone to visit for the day, listen close, and you may be surprised at the extent of planning and consideration that many people have to take before entering a new environment.

[00:02:19] Sarah: Yes, Lauren, what a good call to action for our listeners to think through as they’re considering, maybe having family or friends over and if they’re curious if their current space is visitable or maybe even universal. There is a lot to consider for sure in making an entire home universal, but designing for visitability definitely has many social benefits for making your home welcoming to others.

[00:02:44] Sally: Interesting that two of the three most common universally designed features we heard about in our last Candid Conversation are a part of the criteria for visitability. This just shows how truly important these design features are and how wide doorways and first floor bedrooms and bathrooms are beneficial for all people navigating through the home environment, not just those with disabilities. But, let’s get started with our visitability conversation. Lauren, could you please lead us off with the first criteria, which is a zero step entrance? 

[00:03:15] Lauren:  When it comes to front entrances, Don and Donna Shiflett discuss the issue of visiting homes that don’t have accessible entrances and the social gatherings this can cause them to miss out on. Donna is able to bring her portable ramp to enter some homes, but they discuss the difficulty and safety concerns they are often presented with when attempting to navigate front entrances.

[00:03:37] Donna: And every time you agree to do something or want to do something- 

[00:03:40] Sarah: Sure, it’s like you, have you your you know, three or three to five questions that you –

[00:03:45] Donna: Checklist. 

[00:03:47] Sarah: Exactly. Exactly.

[00:03:48] Don: And people don’t understand, uh, particularly in private homes. They’ll, they’ll say, well, there’s only one step. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, you can get in here, there aren’t any steps. And then you get there and there are two steps and yes, you can use your ramp, but the ramp can have an angle that makes it impractical, particularly coming out and unsafe coming out. Oh my goodness. So it’s, uh, people just really don’t understand.

[00:04:14] Sarah: This also reminds me of another segment of Max and Jo’s interview, who we’ll talk about them a little bit more later in this episode too but they describe having to basically go and do a ton of research on a home before going to visit. They, like Don and Donna, have purchased metal ramps of different lengths to carry around in their vans just to make sure they have the tools they need to visit someone because you don’t know if the person you’re going to visit has one, two or five steps to navigate. What a chore. I know we oftentimes get onto Google maps and we do the earth view and we can look to see if homes have any steps before we go see them in person. We also have often done a drive by to go and look before going to visit, but oftentimes calling people or having them send you a picture of their entrance is helpful too. But this goes to show there’s a lot of work that goes into visiting other people’s homes.

[00:05:11] Sally: Those are some great ideas, Sarah. Although you were quite resourceful, it’s still a bummer that you Scott and others like Don and Donna have to plan so far ahead just to know if you will be able to even enter a home. I have been thinking quite a lot about front entrances, specifically stairs and how this one simple feature can make it impossible for someone to visit a home.

[00:05:35] During the last week or so, while walking around my neighborhood, I have not been able to stop noticing that almost every house has a front doorstep or some type of threshold to cross over. This was never something that I noticed before, because at least in my neighborhood having a front porch with steps or even just a small front doorstep is the norm.

[00:05:56] So it’s just something that I’m used to seeing in terms of home design. I find it so interesting that this is the norm even though a front door step can be such a barrier for someone just to get into their own home or the home of a friend or family member. We heard from some of our interview subjects in our temporary disability episode about how even just those two small steps to get into your home can be such a challenge.

[00:06:23] With this new and growing universal design lens that I’m now looking through, I find design elements like this to be so silly, impractical, and just not necessary. I do get very excited when I see a house that has a driveway or paved pathway leading up to an accessible entrance. But unfortunately this doesn’t appear to be too common.

[00:06:44] Even if you decide that you like the look of a front doorstep, I would highly suggest creating a second accessible entrance, maybe on the side so that all people can safely and comfortably visit your home. This would really make it easier on people like Don and Donna and Max and Jo.

[00:07:00] Sarah: Those are some really good suggestions, Sally. And, Sally and Lauren, isn’t it interesting when you start to notice these little details, now that you’ve been learning about this in your time with us as students? I know that one step into a door from the front landing is so frustrating. I know this feature is actually a big element to keeping water out in the construction process, but with a decent overhang to protect the entrance from rain and proper grading of the walkway, landing, and the yard around the front door, water doesn’t have to be an issue.

[00:07:34] It’s all about planning ahead during the design phase to eliminate these, as you say, Sally impractical elements, and if they aren’t there, they actually provide many more people with the opportunity to enter and participate. So if you’re wanting to make your space more visitable with this zero step entry idea, what could you do?

[00:07:55] Yes, you could add ramps onto homes to eliminate these steps, but they often don’t look as appealing. If you want to go the universal design route and only have a few steps to bypass, you should consider elevating the landscaping of your yard. So, that would be putting some dirt down and building up the front lawn to build it all the way up to your porch, to meet the threshold of the door.

[00:08:19] This way you can put down a solid pathway on the ground, leading up to the porch and landing that is now elevated to the bottom of the door and it looks like it’s integrated into the exterior of the home.

[00:08:31] Lauren: When it comes to the next requirement of visitability standards of wider doorways, Jo Chan and Max Quillen discuss the issue of passage spaces, and the necessary turning radiuses to enter different rooms of the home. Jo stained a spinal cord injury, and although she can access some of her friend’s homes while in a wheelchair, other aspects of the home such as the bathroom are not always as functional.

[00:08:55 ]Jo: Sometimes friends are so kind, they say, “Please stay with us, why stay in a hotel? We know it’s just it’s accessible.” But yes, it can get, I can get into your house, but I can’t get into your bathroom. So in the end, bring me like water. I have to do my, like my routine at the breakfast table.

[00:09:14] So yeah, it’s a bit awkward. 

[00:09:16] Sally: Jo makes a wonderful point here about how having an accessible entryway is great. But if the rooms or spaces inside the home are not also wide enough or accessible enough, then there’s almost no point in being able to enter the home.

[00:09:30] Sarah: Very true. And this is why we advocate for having wide doorways and clear passages so people can interact with other areas of the home and not get stuck in one place.  The minimum of a 32 inch wide doorway is just a minimum, but we advocate for 36 inches or larger, when possible. We’ve been in so many homes where Scott is unable to get into the kitchen, the bathroom, or the living area because of small door frames.

[00:09:57] Not only do you need to look at the doors, but you need to look at what’s around those passageways. In two of our extended family’s homes, the doorway is actually large enough for him to fit through, but a refrigerator pops out into the pathway, making the pathway smaller, which ends up blocking the entrance into the kitchen.

[00:10:16] And where do most people typically gather when they’re in other people’s houses? The kitchen. We’ve been to places where friends have removed a bathroom door to make it larger so Scott could get in, but then he has to put up some sort of curtain for privacy. Also make sure there isn’t any bulky furniture blocking the pathways and doorways either.

[00:10:35] This may sound funny, but if you’re thinking of trying to make your house more visitable in this regard, grab a yard stick and walk around to see if anything blocks your passage. Consider the areas of the home that people may need to access when they’re there and make sure there’s a clear pathway to do so. 

[00:10:52] This brings us to the final criteria for visitability. Lauren, tell us about how our listeners can think about making spaces on the first floor more welcoming.

[00:11:01] Lauren: Yeah, this final criteria included in visitability is access to the bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor. I would argue along with these, access to at least the main common room of the home, where family and friends would spend most of the time while visiting the home, is just as important. Each of the last three interviews we will hear from discuss the social repercussions of not being able to access these main rooms at the home. First, we will hear from Tiffany McManus. Tiffany’s brother has CP, which is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. She describes the isolation her brother felt as the spaces dedicated as playrooms in her home, where peers would come over and all interact together, were not accessible for her brother to join.

[00:11:46] Tiffany: I know not everybody could have this, but it would be kind of nice if there was like some sort of lift, um, so that he could have went down in the basement sometimes, um, to be with that. Like if, um, like my mom, babysat. So a lot of times those kids were going to upstairs to play. So then, you know, he would be kind of by himself watching TV or whatever.

[00:12:04] I’m sure he would have liked to come downstairs and hang out with us. He loved watching other kids run around and interact and stuff. So, so like either some sort of lift or maybe we could’ve gotten one of those little seats that  moves up and down the stairs.

[00:12:22] Sally: This is a pretty interesting perspective to explore because in this case, Tiffany’s brother, Ryan, felt left out of his own home. I think when we talk about visitability we’re generally concerned with the ability of guests to enter someone else’s home and navigate inside with ease.

[00:12:40] But like I said, in this case, Ryan was the one who faced barriers within his own home when guests would come to play, which should never be the case. Tiffany’s brother probably missed out on a lot of fun, social interaction and memories with friends and family because of the stairs inside his home.  

[00:12:56] Sarah: Yes, Sally and Lauren, I’m glad you brought this up for people in their own home or others’ homes.

[00:13:01] This is so important. How frustrating is it to have to be isolated from the rest of your family because of the environment? Oftentimes people put a nice TV room downstairs where people gather to play games and these spaces are usually on other areas of the home. And like you said, people get left out because of the steps.

[00:13:20] I know Scott feels that often, especially when we visit others and there are people gathering on multiple levels of the home. Most people can freely navigate up and down the stairs to mingle, to get different snacks in different rooms. But oftentimes he just feels stuck because he can’t easily navigate those level changes without help and he really doesn’t like being carried from floor to floor. 

[00:13:41] Lauren: Yeah. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to have to be carried floor to floor just to join in with everybody else in the family room. So next we’ll hear from Daniel Barnhart. Daniel has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy.

[00:13:53] Spastic quadriplegia is a form of cerebral palsy  that refers to the loss of use of the whole body due to an increase in muscle tone throughout the arms, legs and rest of the body. Daniel speaks about the limitations he has with leisure times and how his friends and families inaccessible homes causes him to be excluded from social activities.

[00:14:14] Daniel: But I would say one thing you had really affect me in regard to um leisure time. It’s like, I don’t really, I don’t really get invited to anybody’s house. It’s all been me and my family. Cause it’s like the people’s houses like they like you said, they have steps and they’re not wide enough in their house. Their house is not accomodating. And even if it is, people don’t know how to deal with me. So I never, like, I very I very rarely go to people’s houses, except like family friends, or a date, if I’m lucky I go to like, you know, I go to like a frat party, but like thats that’s very rare. Like I’ve been really like, stay at my own house  because the houses are not handicap accessible. 

[00:15:24] Sarah: Right. Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s a big issue because you want to be involved and you want to go over and visit other people, but you can’t, if there’s no way to get in.

[00:15:33] Um, and most, most houses that you would visit these days don’t have those, um, don’t have those features. So- 

[00:15:40] Daniel: I mean, I have a power chair but I – people -people  don’t want to push me up a thousand steps.

[00:15:50] Lauren: Daniel was 24, when this interview was done and listening to this now as a 24 year old myself, it really gets me thinking how isolating that must be. At this stage of life, where a lot of 24 year olds are out of their parents houses, or at least have more freedom in the home they’re in, but also may not yet have a family of their own. It really is a time in life that I feel like a good amount of time is spent at friends’ homes, whether it’s school or studying related, for a house party or just gathering to watch a football game or the latest episode at the Bachelor. I would hate not being able to visit friends homes and purposely being left out of social situations because friends knew I wouldn’t be able to functionally navigate into and around their home.

[00:16:32] Sally: I couldn’t agree more, Lauren. I am also 24 and hearing Daniel mention how it’s rare that he gets to go to a girl’s house or a frat party actually really resonated with me as I graduated college just a few years ago. Socialization is possibly one of the most valuable occupations, especially for those in the emerging adulthood, developmental period. Young adults learned so much from their social surroundings and their encounters with peers.

[00:17:02] These social interactions, help young adults develop their communication skills, their emotional intelligence, their ability to network professionally, and just to help them feel connected with others and like they belong. We all need that because we were all born as social beings. 

[00:17:18] Lauren: The last interviewees we will hear from today are Mike and Dana Ritter. Dana, along with her husband, Mike who sustained a spinal cord injury in 1994, provide the perspective of a married couple who enjoy participating in church small groups and visiting family for the holidays. Mike and Dana described the isolation they feel while attempting to visit friends and family. 

[00:17:40] Dana: Um, I would say, just being able to get into other people’s houses, you know, for example, we’re really active. That’s okay. Let me be truthful here. We’re kind of active in our church and, but we would really enjoy being a part of a small group. Right? Well, that typically is going to be at someone’s house.

[00:18:01] And no matter what house that is, it’s almost a a hundred percent chance that we can’t get in. Um, unless it is in an apartment or it meets at like a Panera. 

[00:18:11] Sarah: Sure. 

[00:18:12] Dana: Or we host it at our house. Like that actually is the only 100% way that we know that we could actually go to the group is if we just hosted ourselves, and guess what? We’re tired. 

[00:18:20] Sarah: That’s why we host ours.

[00:18:22] Dana:  And we are at our house a lot.

[00:18:25] Sarah: Right. 

[00:18:26] Dana: So that is something that is really frustrating for us because we just literally can’t go there. And, um, so housing other people’s housing is a big deal and, you know, like visiting family, um, going on family vacations with, you know, the rest of our people, um, just being able to get in and out of places, that would be a really big game changer.

[00:18:52] And, and I think, especially when, uh, just keep coming back to this idea of like a church home group, you know, um, you know, you’re typically stepping a little bit out of your comfort zone anyway, going to someone’s house that you don’t know. And then it’s like, for me thinking about the drama that is involved in like so are we going to have to pick him up out of the, somebody’s going to have to hold him and carry him and someone is going to have to hold the door.

[00:19:16] We’re going to have everybody that’s inside eating dinner is going have to stop what they’re doing. 

[00:19:19] Sarah: The Ritters are here!

[00:19:20] Dana: Make a scene. He may or may not be dropped. Right. And that, for me, like my anxiety level just goes up and then after he’s in the door, then it’s like, okay, all right. He can’t get in the bathroom.

[00:19:34] He can’t get in the kitchen. I need to get his plate. I’ve got to dah, dah, dah. So then it’s like, I finally sit down. I’m like, oh, hi, great. Cause finally, and then I’m thinking about the exit strategy right? Like we’re going to leave and it’s getting dark and I don’t know what’s going on with the steps. Oh, the van is like, I’m gonna have to pull it around.

[00:19:52] It’s just, so then we’re not going to go. Right? Just so that we don’t have any friends, you know? And, uh, I think that that is really hard. And, and also I think that, you know, I’m not, I can’t say that this has definitely happened to any of our friends have like excluded us for any reason. Um, but it is kind of a lot.

[00:20:13] Yeah. It is a lot to deal with. And, um, you know, You might make, just do it once. 

[00:20:22] Sarah: Yeah. We’ve had friends where we now just plan to eat out somewhere with them. Um, they have a few children and our place isn’t that big. And so it’s hard for them to come to our place because they don’t have a lot of, we don’t have a lot of room.

[00:20:36] Um, it’s hard for us to go to their place because they’re eight steps to get in. And we, we tried it, it wasn’t. It wasn’t that great. Um, and so yeah, we go out and then eating out is expensive when you have a large family. And so- 

[00:20:47] Mike: Red Robin Tuesday nights!

[00:20:49] Sarah:  Here you go. So like, how do you work at all and how do you keep those friendships?

[00:20:53] Dana: Also, there’s just kind of this like subtle message that sent that. A lot of people may not understand that it’s just like, you are not one of us, you know, like you can sleep in the garage, you know, like, we’ll go to my family’s house for Thanksgiving. It’ll be fun. You know, we’ll all come down to the man cave.

[00:21:12] Oh, okay. Like, you know, and then like it, we’re going to call it a night and we’re going to sleep on the futon in the man-cave. And like, my whole family is still going to be up for hours upstairs in the kitchen and we’re not there. So it’s like our part of the family. But then because of that barrier, we can only get so far.

[00:21:31] And I think just that subtle message over time. It really is. It’s hard on relationships.

[00:21:36] Lauren: Mike and Dana’s interview is a good one to end on in my opinion, because they really capture the extent of planning, frustration, and as Dana says, drama, involved in trying to visit a new friend’s home or trying to be involved in family activities while being isolated into the accessible rooms or room of the home. 

[00:21:56] Sarah: Yes, they are so real in sharing the frustrations of this. I agree you should listen in on their interview cause they’re a really great couple. And they also talk a little bit more about the heart of this topic for the first floor bedroom and bathroom. 

[00:22:10] And I would argue that is not just that these places exist, but that they’re actually functional. You can say, oh, we’re good to go. We have a main floor bedroom and bathroom, but if there’s not enough floor space in that bathroom for someone in a wheelchair to go inside and turn around, it’s not going to work well.

[00:22:28] If there’s not enough room beside the bed for someone to get in, it’s not going to work well. And in the bathroom, if somebody can’t enter and shut the door, that’s a problem. If someone can’t access the shower, that’s really not ideal either. If your toilet is in its own little room with a door to enter or shoved between some cabinets and a tub, that’s not going to work well either. That’s why it’s so important to connect with an occupational therapist who has the experience with how people move and use spaces and different equipment and with different abilities to make sure the space is actually usable. So reach out to us or some other OTs for some input.

[00:23:08] Lauren: Well said, Sarah. Before working with the Universal Design Project, for me, the concept of knowing I one day will need an accessible home that is more functional as I age or encounter a health issue that alters the way I live my life was one thing, and what might be the case for other people as well.

[00:23:25] This is something I feel as though it may be easy to put off in our minds as ” I want a universally accessible home before I NEED a universally accessible home, but, later.” However, it’s a whole different thing for me to listen to these interviews and how each person describes their experience and extent of isolation others inaccessible homes cause. I never want someone to feel as though I’m excluding them because I live in a place that I know does not accommodate their needs.

[00:23:55] This new perspective fills me with a feeling of urgency for the work that the Universal Design Project is doing to create communities with an abundance of universally accessible housing.

[00:24:06] Sarah: This is so exciting for me to hear you say this, Lauren. And honestly, I agree with what you’re saying and how you’re learning through these stories that have been shared. I don’t think people are intentionally trying to exclude others from their home, but many who have never had an illness or injury themselves, or maybe don’t know many people that do, wouldn’t even think about the design of an environment impacting somebody’s ability to use it. So I’m glad that as you’ve worked on content for our podcast and listen to these stories, you are able to, as a student, advocate for these concepts, as well as advocate for those as you go into being a professional OT. And one last thought for me, I can’t tell you how many times many of my friends have said during their home buying searches that they are wanting to make sure they have an easy home for us to visit and they add some of these visitability criteria into their wish list when they’re looking to buy. But what is unfortunate is that even though they’re looking for these visitability features, they’re not actually in many of the homes they’re looking to buy.

[00:25:15] They’re not out there. Which means we have more work to do Good Fit, Poor Fit listeners. Share with your friends and family that these aren’t just good ideas, but they’re life giving and reduce frustrations for homeowners and their guests. Don’t take our word for it. These Candid Conversations with some of our friends with disabilities are echoing the same point.

[00:25:36] Sally: Very true and that’s why I’m so glad we’re doing this series. I also want to add one more closing thought and that is that designing a home with visitability in mind may make it easier for you to rent your home or sell it when it’s time. In our summer vacation podcast, we talk about how finding accessible rental homes is near impossible.

[00:25:58] A universally designed home would not only be functional for you, your family, friends, and neighbors, but it would also be a great option for those looking for a vacation rental or long-term place to stay. If I could guess this home would be snatched up in the blink of an eye because the supply of accessible homes is so much lower than the demand.

[00:26:18] Basically when building a house with the principles of universal design in mind, you open up your home to so many potential visitors, some of whom may even pay you for their stay.

[00:26:29] Sarah: Really good point, Sally. This is why we do what we do at The Universal Design Project, to make sure we’re designing homes that have these features and more into the plan from the start. Because whether you’re making your home welcoming to others, or for yourself, we need to see more of this in our communities.

[00:26:47] Sally: Well put, Sarah and thanks to Lauren for bringing the topic of visitability to our attention. Listeners, as always, we appreciate you and hope you learned a thing or two from our Candid Conversation today. We will talk again soon. Have a good one!

[00:27:02]  Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].

[00:27:30] Thanks for fitting us into your day!


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