Laura Hershey's Whenever Web Column

Column from January 11, 2000

Accessible Homes Mean Barrier-Free Friendships

Copyright 2000 by Laura Hershey

One cold evening in December, I went to my friend Carolyn's 50th birthday party. My partner Robin and I arrived around 9 p.m. We parked our van, went up to the door, and entered, greeting our friends with hugs. We gave Carolyn her presents, and enjoyed her reactions as she opened them. After that, we sat around talking with other party guests, listening to music, drinking red wine.

Around 11 p.m., we reluctantly said our goodbyes, exchanged more hugs, and left.

So what? you might be asking. What's the big deal?
You're right; it shouldn't be a big deal. It was just a couple of people going to visit their good friends, sharing in an important celebration. It was just a party. It happens all the time, especially around the holidays.

But in one sense, it was a big deal. For people who use wheelchairs for mobility, like Robin and I do, visiting our nondisabled friends is often impossible. Most private homes are completely inaccessible to wheelchair users. American homes are traditionally designed with entrances that require climbing anywhere from two to twenty stairs. Often that means friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers are excluded from participation in important social activities, and from the lives of nondisabled homeowners who may never think about the barriers which surround them.
My friend Carolyn and her husband Les, who live in a turn-of-the-century bungalow-style home in northeast Denver, did think about it. And they decided to do something about it. Les and another friend got together one weekend, and they designed and built a sturdy wooden ramp up to the front door. No longer will five steps stand between the Reeds and their friends who use wheelchairs.

I heard from another friend just before Christmas; a wheelchair user who lives in another state, she had the opposite experience during the holiday season. A lawyers' association held its annual holiday reception in a private home with a steep flight of stairs. Despite her longstanding membership, she was effectively barred from attending this important event. The homeowner issued an apology that was as sincere as it was poignant; she admitted that even her own mother, who is mobility-impaired, couldn't visit her inaccessible home.

The apology didn't help my friend get in the door. The same thing has happened to me: I can't count the number of party invitations I've had to decline due to lack of access. And that doesn't even include the parties I wasn't told about, by friends who knew I wouldn't be able to come anyway.

This kind of exclusion really hurts. It's one thing when you can't get into a store or a restaurant. You might have the option of suing to demand access improvements. Even if you don't, you can take the sour-grapes approach, spurning one business in favor of another, more accessible one. It's different when you can't get into someone's home, especially when that someone is a friend. Then it's personal.

Maybe things are starting to change. As disabled people enter professions, community activities, and social circles, more nondisabled people become aware of the kinds of barriers that separate us from them. I have two other friends here in Colorado who, though they themselves do not use wheelchairs, have built ramps so that they can welcome into their homes people who do. Kathy, a member of my writers' group, hired contractors to construct a ramp to the front door of her west Denver home. She's invited me and Robin over for dinner several times. Whenever I visit, I love perusing her collection of feminist books, and colorful craft items from Central America.

And Laurie, a long-time friend of mine who lives in Loveland, offered her brother storage space in exchange for a Saturday spent building a long ramp up to her back door. Last summer she hosted a backyard barbecue. When the rain started to pour, we quickly sought refuge in her small but comfortable house. If the ramp hadn't been there, Robin and I would have had to pack up and head home, missing the rest of the party.

I feel extremely lucky to have friends like these, who can and do invite me into their homes. The fact that they spent time and/or money making their homes accessible feels like both a tremendous complement and a tangible benefit to the community in which we live. These ramps represent solid statements of friendship, and concrete commitments to a belief in nondiscriminatory inclusiveness.

Just imagine a world in which everyone lived in wheelchair-accessible homes! Not just wheelchair users, but everyone. This would not only allow for friends to visit friends. It would mean that when a company or an organization holds a social function in an individual's home, wheelchair users wouldn't be excluded. It would mean that when relatives start to age, slow down, and require walkers or wheelchairs, they could still be part of their families' lives.

There's an international movement to try to create just such a world. Concrete Change, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is advocating for a concept called "visitability." Specifically, Concrete Change wants all new housing construction to incorporate basic access features: at least one level or ramped "zero-step" entrance; and doorways (including bathroom doors) at least 32 inches wide.

This grassroots group is fighting an uphill battle. The homebuilding industry resists any accessibility mandates, arguing that such requirements will increase home prices. But in fact, building with basic access in mind costs much, much less than retrofitting existing structures.

Despite the obstinacy of the construction industry, Concrete Change can boast of several significant successes. The city of Atlanta passed an ordinance in 1992 to mandate a zero-step entrance in certain private, single-family homes. By 1998, over 500 visitable homes had been constructed under the Atlanta ordinance. The city of Austin, Texas, passed a similar ordinance in 1998. That same year, the British Parliament enacted a law requiring basic access features in new homes constructed throughout England and Wales.

To learn more about Concrete Change , the international effort to make all homes visitable, visit their website at

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