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Housing for people with mobility impairment

Posted by Rona Fischman July 24, 2012 01:46 PM

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Thursday, July 26, is the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I have long been a supporter of universal design and regularly work with disabled home-buyers as part of my real estate practice. I have been frustrated in my efforts not only by the older housing stock, crowded neighborhoods and lack of land for building. I also fume over the new developments that I see popping up which lack access for disabled buyers.

People with mobility impairments (this includes people who use wheelchairs, have cardiac or pulmonary disease, as well as people with arthritis) are all ages, races and classes. Not all of them want to live in tower-style condo buildings. Some would prefer condos in small associations where they can enjoy a yard and a neighborhood. Some want single-family homes in established neighborhoods.

Look around where you live. See how many places built after 1990 could be home to someone with mobility impairment. Even now, new construction is rarely universal design unless it is a big multistory development.

When I began in real estate in 1991, I specialized in adaptive housing. That’s the art and science of figuring out where someone with special needs can live comfortably. As a buyer’s broker, I began in real estate by actively trying to work with people who used wheelchairs, or people who were deaf or blind.

Here are some websites for those who want to know more about adapted house for people with mobility impairment.

Universal design

Boston Center for Independent Living

General information about service and resources

Finding an accessible apartment

Contact a specialist


The simplest “how to” to find a house that can be adapted is to look at the expensive items first. The most expensive things to change are the entry method, the bathroom, and kitchen. If you find a place with a first floor bedroom and bathroom, and that bathroom has a closet next to the wall that has no plumbing, and outside is fairly level to the front door, you may have something worth adapting.

Obviously, any property for someone who cannot climb stairs should have enough space for that person on one level. I have seen some very livable designs where the basement is on grade in the back and the front door is on grade in the front because it was built on a hill.

It is common for housing in Massachusetts to have 5-10 steps up to the front door. Therein, lies the problem.

Ramps take up a lot of space. It is recommended that you have a foot of ramp for every vertical inch. So, one step is about 8 inches high; that’s eight feet of ramp per step. So, a house with more than a step or two at the front door may pose a problem.
Lifts are expensive. They require maintenance. They don’t work in power outages and they can break down. I have seen single family houses with elevators, but they are rare because of the cost.

If a house has more than 4 or 5 stairs leading up to the front door, it becomes both expensive a cumbersome to retrofit an entrance.
Bathrooms and kitchens:

Since bathrooms and kitchens are generally expensive to renovate, it is important to check that there is enough floor space to do a universal design renovation in both of these rooms. If these rooms can be successfully redesigned, the widening of doors is a relatively small change.

On Thursday, Paul Morse is going to describe what a universal design bathroom would look like and why it is universal, not “adaptive” or “wheelchair accessible.”

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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