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Taking Accessibility a Few Steps Further

"An opportunity for homebuilders." That's how an article in the summer issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) refers to the lack of accessible housing in the United States.

The article continues: "In light of concerns about the civil rights of people with disabilities and the high public cost of nursing home care, housing accessibility is a critical issue for planners and policymakers as well." The JAPA research found that most new single-family houses built today will be inhabited at some point by someone with a disability.

The article was by Stanley K. Smith and Stefan Rayer of the University of Florida, along with Eleanor Smith. As executive director of the national organization Concrete Change, Smith is the country's leading advocate of visitability.

In an interview Smith suggested that the question isn't, "How many people have disabilities?" ("That's a tiny slice.") Rather it's, "How many houses, over their 75- to 100-year lives, will be home to someone who has a disability?" The researchers estimated that a newly built, single-family detached unit has a 60 percent chance of housing at least one resident with severe long-term mobility limitations and a 25 percent probability of housing someone with "self-care limitations."

"When disabled visitors are accounted for, the probabilities rise to 91 percent and 53 percent respectively," the authors added.

Other developments on the visitability/accessibility agenda this summer:

. AARP, the seniors' lobby, is publishing a major paper on visitability, due out in July.
• Regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are being updated; a 60-day period for public comment is under way this summer.
. "A Pattern Book on Inclusive Housing" is to be published late this summer or early this fall.

The pattern book is the work of Edward Steinfeld, professor of architecture and director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo, and his colleagues. "It will provide guidance for block design, site design and house design, in both traditional and more modern styles, and across a range of price points," Steinfeld said. "It will be new urbanist as well as accessible."

The Justice Department says revision of the ADA guidelines is intended to make them "more consistent with model building codes and industry standards in order to make compliance easier." Steinfeld hailed the new guidelines as something new urbanists should get behind -- in part to forestall a more stringent regime.

New urbanists have not warmed to the access agenda as advocates like Smith would like, however. She was co-chair of the accessibility initiative of the Congress for the New Urbanism but resigned from CNU after what she considered a disappointing session on accessibility at CNU XV in Philadelphia in 2007.

At CNU XVI in Austin this year, Bruce F. Donnelly, an urban planner from the Cleveland area, voiced his concern about the access agenda: "The bottom line for many of us is that we don't want to rule out building types." A particular concern: walk-up residential buildings of one to three units.

In a follow-up interview, he explained, "Whatever happens, no historic building type should be abandoned for a single reason." He also worries that "guidelines tend to be written as if traditional building types didn't exist." And he lamented what he described as a lack of "a mechanism for codifying traditional building types."

Concrete Change promotes the three-point visitability standard -- by ordinance if possible (as in Tucson, Ariz., as of last fall), by voluntary compliance otherwise:

. A zero-step entry, which may be from the rear or through a garage;
. Interior doors at least 32 inches wide;
. A main floor bathroom (at least half-bath) that is accessible by wheelchair.

Visitability is a less stringent standard than full accessibility but is being promoted more universally -- to cover all new residential construction. On only 5 percent of building lots does the slope make a zero-step entrance not feasible, Smith estimated, adding that visitability features add only $100 to $500 to the cost of a new home.

Visitability and accessibility tend to get lumped together, however. And the ADA draws particular fire from builders and developers, who say it lacks an administrative mechanism and is instead "enforced by lawsuit."

"Visitability is not intended to exclude anything," Steinfield said. Some types of housing can be hard to make visitable, he said, notably carriage houses and apartments over garages, residential units over commercial buildings, and live-work units. But his new pattern book will have some solution for all of these, he promised.

By Smith's reckoning, just one building type is likely to "go extinct": a dwelling with a few steps down to the basement and a few steps up to the first floor. "And so what?" But she stressed that she's "all for density" and rejected the charge that the visitability standard will put everyone in a high-rise or a ranch house.

A paradox is at work here. On one hand, steps are inherent to new urbanism. Multistory dwellings help make density possible and help reclaim the middle ground between sprawl and downtown. And new urbanists respect the traditional architecture of the communities in which they build. That can mean building multistory townhouses or even mean houses on stilts.

On the other hand, new urbanism is good fit for people with disabilities in so many way. "The really big issue is the design and location of communities," Carol Wyant, executive director of the Form-Based Codes Institute in Chicago, observed recently. "The tight ped shed" is a real help to those with disabilities, and a community's "car dependence" is a major limitation for them. As she spoke, from a coffee shop in walkable Alameda, Calif., she noted that someone in a motorized wheelchair had just whizzed by -- as if to reinforce her point.

Steve Mouzon of the Urban Guild said in an interview, "For a long time I was firmly on the side of rejecting visitability." Being asked to design a raised Katrina cottage with its zero-step entrance at the front proved to be eye-opening, however. He devised a side ramp to bring a wheelchair user to the porch and the front door.

The experience has made him wonder what other possibilities he may have overlooked. As time permits, he's working on a slope-development toolkit to let a builder calculate how to site a house on a lot to give it a zero-step entrance. A builder will need to plug in only a few numbers -- the elevation of the four corners of the lot, along with its width, depth and front-yard setback -- and presto! Out will come the information needed. Mouzon speculated that some of the resistance to stairs may be modernist resistance against traditional architecture, with its literal and symbolic "elevation" of important structures. He suspects some modernists may be using the disability issue to be able to "cut traditional buildings off at the knees."

Like steps, porches are another quintessentially new urbanist element that is problematic for wheelchairs. Mouzon's studies of what he calls the "geometry of relationships" tell him that height above street level helps determine whether a porch actually gets used. On a "defensible" porch several feet up, people will feel secure and engage passersby in conversation. If not elevated, a porch needs considerable depth to "protect" sitters.

Mouzon also said, "Universal design for everyone is a myth," and called for some other term, "nimble design," perhaps, to refer to design that doesn't try to be all things to all people but rather includes adjustable elements. Some accessibility features, such as curb cuts, have "no downside," as he put it. But a kitchen counter at the right height for someone in a wheelchair is manifestly the wrong height for someone who will use the counter standing up, he said.

Issues of access and mobility are personal for Connie Moran, mayor of Ocean Springs, Miss., and a new member of the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism. An economic development professional by trade, she's also the mother of a 13-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and the daughter of an octogenarian mother who uses a cane.

Moran is eager to go beyond the standards of the ADA and resists the idea of having to choose between accesibility and good design. "Why can't we have both?"