Communities require houses with features for the disabled.

By Pamela Cotant

Appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal, March 24, 2002

When Caroline Fribance built a home in Monona, she considered how she and her husband would grow old there.

The open floor plan on the first floor was designed to accommodate a wheelchair if needed.

In addition, an exercise room next to the first floor bathroom could become the master bedroom, which is now on the second floor.

Fribance said she was aware of disability issues as a former employment lawyer. She also saw her in-laws struggle as they aged and wanted to stay in their own home but found it wasn't feasible.

"I saw that and how desperately they really wanted to stay in their own home,"Fribance said. "Personally, I think a lot of the accessibility is just a smart way to do things."

Some communities across the country are taking the issue a step further by requiring all new homes have certain accessible features. The new codes are largely the result of advocates' efforts to ensure that people with disabilities can more easily visit their neighbors - the so called "visit ability"movement.

Last month, Naperville,IL modified its building codes. New homes in the fast-growing Chicago suburb must have doorways with at least 32 inch clearance--which means the entire doorway is wider.

In addition, light switches and outlets must be at heights easily reached from a wheelchair. Bathroom walls must be reinforced to support the addition of grab bars.

The city delayed another requirement--one entrance without stairs--for further study. Steve Verriden, independent living services coordinator for Access to Independence, 2345 Atwood Avenue, said he would welcome such laws in the area.

"It's something we would like to see around here. There's such a shortage of accessible and affordable housing,"Verriden said.

Verriden said elderly people frequently call Access to Independence for assistance to make their homes more accessible only to find out they can't because of the way their home is built or a lack of resources. It's more expensive to alter a home after it's built, he said.

Even building a basic wooden ramp costs $62.00 per linear foot, Verriden said.

Similar laws have been enacted for businesses and "it's logical to move onto the next step, which is housing," Verriden said.

"I don't think builders would have a problem with it, accessibility is always a concern," said Brian McKee, president of the Madison Area Builders Association and Vice president of Midwest Homes, 925 Watson Avenue.

"It's client driven," McKee said. "It's not that builders are reluctant to build it, but our industry is based on demand and if the demand isn't there, we're not doing it."

In Fribance's home, the bathroom is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. a small tile seat is built at one end of the tub to help someone transfer from a wheelchair.

The drain and controls also are accessible from the seat. The vanity under the bathroom sink is easily removable so a wheelchair could go underneath it.

Wood blocking was put inside the bathroom walls so grab bars can be added later. The doorways and hallways on the first floor are wider than normal with places where someone in a wheelchair could turn around.

The kitchen is big and has no island while the home office is more of a nook with no door."

'Visit ability' is the current buzz word for what I think of as just good residential design," said Lou Host-Jablonski, an architect with Design Coalition, which designed the home built by Design Shelters of Middleton.

For $300 to $400, an average home could have slightly wider doors, a slightly bigger bathroom with reinforced walls for grab bars and lower light switches, which doesn't cost more, Host-Jablonski said.

The biggest issue is the exterior entrance--it does require situating the home on the ground in a way that eliminates a ramp, he said. McKee said it costs slightly more to create a grade level entrance, due to the need for things such as more fill sand and other materials to prevent water from getting in the house. Such a rule also would make it very difficult to build on some lots, he said.

Also, "to some people it might affect the 'curb appeal' of the house," McKee said.

McKee said the costs to make homes accessible also depend on the size of the home. For example, to make bathrooms accessible to someone in a wheelchair requires a 5-foot radius, which adds square footage to the home, and accessible sinks reduce the storage underneath them, he said.

Wider doors and larger bathrooms would cost $400 to $1,000 for most houses and even more for ones that are larger.

Verriden said when he bought a house 10 years ago, he had limited choices because he needed something accessible or easily converted to meet his needs as a quadriplegic. He found a house with an open layout and few hallways and spent about $9,000 to make it accessible.

But having an accessible home is only part of the solution because of problems visiting others.

"It really impacts your social life," Verriden said. "It has been a real serious issue for me on some occasions."

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