Everyone reading this article is probably familiar with the term accessibility and has experience advocating for it, experiencing it when good and when not so good. In earlier articles we’ve discussed accessibility in areas such as employment, education, travel, voting and lodging. How about the term visitability, which is related to accessibility but includes different guidelines, motivation and effect? (Many raised hands in the crowd probably went down.) Most important, the effect of visitability on individuals with impaired mobility strikes at the core of their daily lives.
What is Visitability?
Whereas accessibility typically refers to access to public and government buildings as well as private places of public accommodation, visitability specifically applies to homes. The concept began in the United States in 1986 when a group called Concrete Change in Atlanta, Ga., headed by Eleanor Smith, originated the idea under the name “Basic Home Design.” In 1990, the term visitability was being used in the UK to describe a similar concept. Smith and her group adopted that term. In its most basic sense, visitability is a movement to change new home construction practices to ensure that homes, whether or not designed for people with mobility impairments, include three features to make them partially accessible (see above).
Wide-scale accessibility laws, highlighted by the Americans with Disabilities Act, mandate protection of the civil rights of people with impaired mobility and other disabilities. In contrast, proponents of visitability emphasize the violation of human rights of people when homes are built with steps at all entrances and narrow interior doorways. Negative effects of those homes include physically unsafe living conditions for residents with mobility impairments, social isolation (including inhibiting friends and family members with mobility impairments from visiting those homes) and forced institutionalization of residents who develop or acquire even temporary mobility impairments and cannot return to their own inaccessible homes.
Three visitability features
Compared to complete accessibility, requirements for building a visitable home are simple. The three features include:
- At least one zero-step entrance to the house approachable from an accessible route on a firm surface no steeper than 1:12, proceeding from a driveway or public sidewalk.
- All interior main floor doors, including bathrooms, provide a minimum 32 inches of clear passage space.
- At least one half bath/powder room on the main floor.
Benefits of Visitability
Obviously homes built with visitability features make it possible for those with impaired mobility to visit the homes to socialize with friends, attend dinner gatherings, participate in meetings or attend family activities. Beyond that, residents and friends or family who experience impaired mobility — even temporarily — can access and use the main part of the house.
Visitability is not just for wheelchair users. It also benefits walker users and those with ambulatory weakness, stiffness, and balance problems. Think about the benefits to everyday activities like carrying groceries inside, pushing a baby stroller or even moving furniture in and out of the house. One study found that a minimum 25 percent of all new homes constructed will have a resident with long-term, severe mobility impairment over the lifetime of the house. Consider the difficulty if a resident simply breaks a leg or injures a knee or hip, resulting in even temporary mobility impairment.
Visitability vs. Expense
A common question about visitability is how much it will cost the property owner. Maybe surprisingly, visitability adds almost no cost to the construction of a new home. Since homesites require grading before construction, planning a zero-threshold entrance adds about $100 to the expense of a home built on a concrete slab. If the home is built over a crawlspace or basement, that expense increases to $300-$600. The cost of installing wider interior doorways when a house is constructed is only about $20 (10 doors at $2 each).
Compare that to the expense of renovating a constructed house. Estimates are $3,300 for labor and materials to add a zero-step entrance to an existing home. Widening a single existing interior doorway is estimated to cost $700, including labor and materials. Now think about the wider market share attracted to purchasing a house constructed with visitability features.
The Ultimate Benefit
The visitability concept is not new, and the need for and benefits of meeting the three basic features in new construction are obvious. The added cost is minimal and will save the homeowner even short-term hospital and nursing home expenses if a family member acquires a mobility impairment. The human expense of separating that family member by moving him or her into an institution, even during expensive renovation, is extraordinary.
The most important and meaningful effect of constructing a home with visitability features is the inclusion of all individuals despite possible mobility impairments. No more change of location to somewhere accessible, searching for a friend with a visitable home, or just deciding a friend or family member with impaired mobility cannot participate. Visitability is simply the right thing to do and the wise thing to do when building a
Chris Clasby lives in Missoula, Mont. He is known for his advocacy for people with disabilities. He is an avid hunter and fisherman, and much of his work has centered on helping people with disabilities access the outdoors.