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Whether you anticipate changes in your health status or that of a friend or relative, modifying a home to accommodate a disability could be a component of those changes. While you may have visions of drop cloths, plastic sheeting and drywall dust all over your home, don’t worry. Many home modifications need not involve noisy construction and costly contractors. There are many inexpensive ways to make your home more accessible.
If you are planning in-home care strategies with your aging parents, or just want to answer the question “What do we do when Uncle Bob comes over?” the following tips can help alleviate the stress and anxiety of making the changes that will accompany you into a new phase of life.
Keep the lines of communication open. It is always better to inquire as to what is needed than to avoid the issue. Asking what is the best way to accommodate a disability is not insensitive, and raising your awareness can help to avoid awkward moments and misunderstanding. Dont be afraid to express your ignorance and consider the situation a learning opportunity. Your desire to learn is an act of compassion, as it treats others with dignity and respect.
Try a simulation exercise. Spend a day sitting in a wheelchair. Move about the living areas making note of what is in the way or out of reach. Rearrange the items that you anticipate will be needed frequently. For example, pull the microwave closer to the edge of the countertop, or move it to a low table, while still allowing for a food transfer and preparation area. Simulate vision loss with a blindfold, and attempt to locate food in the pantry or refrigerator, personal care items, towels, electrical outlets, and the telephone. Make these items readily accessible and identifiable. This exercise will help you to understand the challenges that face people with disabilities every day.
Dont overdo it. If your loved one or friend uses a wheelchair, it is not necessary to remove all the furniture in the house. In general, you should establish a five-foot by five-foot turning radius for wheelchair users in kitchens and bathrooms when possible. If a person who is blind comes over, you need not pack away your knick-knacks. While removing obstacles is a good idea, simply orienting the person to his surroundings and potential hazards can go a long way toward making that individual feel more welcome and comfortable.
Seek alternatives. If you are unable to recruit a contractor to widen doorways, you can try removing doors altogether or purchasing swing free hinges. These special hinges allow the door to swing completely away from the frame, allowing just a little extra room to accommodate a scooter or smaller wheelchair.
Remove hazards. Think of the home modification project in the same way you think of baby-proofing a home. If electrical cords might cause a tripping hazard, remove them or tape them securely to the floor. Remove throw rugs or floor mats that may impede a person who has difficulty ambulating. These items may also make using a cane or walker more difficult.
Know when to stop. If a friend or loved one is visiting or living with you, ask how much description is needed for comfortable identification of food, surroundings or entertainment activities. This way you do not find yourself providing a continuous stream of information, which may be embarrassing and unnecessary.
Keep your options open. Not all alterations to the home must be permanent. If a person is temporarily disabled or undergoing difficult treatments that will eventually conclude, look for independent living aids that can assist with reaching and grabbing, seating and support, watching TV or reading. Many daily living aids are inexpensive, and may fill a role temporarily. Daily living aids can be found in catalogs and on the Internet. You will discover an astounding array of tools for home, work and play.
Shop around. Not all home modification fixtures are utilitarian, unsightly and sterile-looking. With the popularity of home makeover and interior decorating shows, many of these design elements are very fashionable. Decorative grab bars, bath fixtures and floor texturizing for safe ambulation are attractive and readily available.
Don’t forget about lighting. For those with low vision, consider how lighting can make your guests or loved ones more comfortable. Either insufficient or intense lighting may be problematic, depending upon the specific type of vision loss. Use lighting to enhance contrast, as well as a way to identify potential hazards, such as stairs or changes in the floor texture. Ask the individual in what type of lighting he or she functions best. He or she may prefer indirect light or close lighting, or lighting that can be adjusted. Install dimmer switches for maximum flexibility.
Do a little research. If you do require construction, look for contractors that are familiar with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) construction guidelines. Accurate communication will ensure that the result will meet your specific needs. A good contractor will know the critical requirements of wheelchair ramp width, slope ratio, handrail height, etc. If you are considering a major remodel or building a new home, then find a contractor that specializes in universal design. When modifying a home for accessibility, small changes can make a big difference.
Evolving health circumstances along with aging can make for difficult choices. Educate yourself as to the variety of accessibility options, and comparison shop for the best value. Planning for changes before they are necessary will make transitioning into a new lifestyle more comfortable and secure. Most importantly, you can enhance the quality of life for yourself as well as for your loved ones.
By Laura Gillson, 2005
Laura Gillson is a speaker, author and educator specializing in disability awareness, advocacy, accessibility and assistive technology.