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Happy Thanksgiving from CCDC’s Civil Rights Legal Program Director!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

From Kevin Williams, CCDC Civil Rights Legal Program Director

I won’t be joining you, but thanks for the invitation.

front door of a house that has been decorated for Thanksgiving

As we all know, there is “no place like home for the holidays.” So why is it that I and so many of my friends, colleagues, clients and CCDC members who use motorized or other wheelchairs can’t join you and yours for such festivities at your inaccessible house? The answer is simple. You hate us. No, I’m just kidding. The real reason is the law does not apply to “single-family homes,” meaning homes do not have to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs. (For those who don’t speak legalese, “single-family homes” mean “houses.”) So, thank you very much for your invitation, but unless you plan to throw me a turkey leg while I sit in your front yard longingly peeking in the window and seeking to enjoy everyone’s company around the Thanksgiving table, I will be unable to make it.

I know, I know. You have no problem carrying me up the stairs to get in your front door, but my motorized wheelchair weighs a few hundred pounds, and, after using a wheelchair for 33 years and eating (perhaps too much) at Thanksgiving dinners over the years, I’m not as svelte as I once was either. So “carrying” those of us who use wheelchairs is not only demeaning, but dangerous.

Photo of a person who had been sitting in a wheelchair but is now sprawled out on the stairs, the wheelchair on its side at the bottom of the stairs..

Finally, you might want to check your homeowner’s insurance policy before considering this option:

Even those of you with the best intentions (those who want to carry us) sometimes fail. This usually disrupts the holiday meal as well.

 

Photo of a home with a portable ramp leading from the top of the steps at the front door to the walkway.And yes. Maybe those cool foldout ramps that I carry around in my van for just such occasions might get me in the front door, but we should probably consider the ramifications of our situation if I have to use the restroom. Any thoughts about what I should do there? My guess is that the bathrooms in your house are probably not accessible. Beyond that, even if I get up this first step, often there are many more once I get inside. The ramps don’t always work. In fact, the first picture shows three steps leading to a porch with yet another step to the front door. My ramps definitely would not work under the circumstances.

But don’t worry! It is not your fault! I’m not going to sue you (well, I guess that depends on who invites me). It is simple. The federal and state Fair Housing Acts do not require your house to be accessible. Even if it was built last week. You have no legal obligation to provide me with an accessible house.

When I have tried to work with legislators to address this issue, I have found that I meet with great resistance from a constituency most legislators have called “home builders associations.” What they say is people can’t sell their house if it looks like a “handicap house,”[1] and people surely don’t want to live in a “handicap house;” after all, they are so ugly. But is that true? Does having a single ramp or a flat, level entrance or 32-inch wide doors or a restroom that has enough room to accommodate an accessible toilet and/or a roll-in shower really cause some sort of depreciation in the value of your home? Does anyone have any data to back this up? I think not, but data and evidence do not seem to matter much these days so I guess we will just take the word of the home builders association. In point of fact, as an individual who has sold an accessible property, I can tell you on a personal level, those features actually increased the resale value. This is in part because accessibility opened up the opportunity of homeownership to a wider market of people. The person who bought my last home was an individual who used a wheelchair. Because I had created a van-accessible parking space in the garage in the building and built a roll-in shower, and because the home was a condominium that is required to meet minimal Fair Housing Act requirements (e.g., there was a ramp to the front door), the buyer found these features to be very helpful and something he could not find everywhere else he had looked.

Here’s the deal: the federal and state Fair Housing Acts require very minimal accessibility features. Also, those very minimal accessible features only apply to multi-family housing (essentially, apartments and condominiums). In these multifamily housing units (the requirement is four or more units connected together either on one level ore by an elevator), there are seven basic requirements, and they are very minimal as set forth in the Fair Housing Act Design Manual.[2]

Single-family homes ARE NOT REQUIRED TO BE ACCESSIBLE AT ALL! There is no requirement in the federal or state Fair Housing Acts that any access be provided. (By the way, don’t be confused. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to housing — at least not what I am discussing here.) There is also a state law in Colorado that requires some things related to accessibility that are not included in the Fair Housing Act, but even these do not apply to single-family homes. The bottom line is houses simply are not required to be accessible by any law. Guess what? As a result, they aren’t accessible. Not even a little bit. Very many of us who use wheelchairs are simply excluded from an enormous amount of everyday, normal human activity that the rest of you take for granted.

Why?! There is no good reason with respect to newly-designed houses. It is much more complicated and expensive to remodel a house to make it accessible than it is to build the house that way in the first place.

Stop for a moment and think about all of the activity that occurs inside your or a family member’s house. The holidays and all of the get-togethers with family and friends during this time of year simply exclude a large and growing portion of the population who use wheelchairs and who cannot access many houses. Unfortunately, because of the resistance to incorporating a handful of simple design features into newly constructed houses, your homes are no place for us for the holidays. And let’s put holidays aside. Think of how much human activity occurs inside people’s house — where people get together for almost any social experience you can imagine. Beyond that, I keep hearing about many of my friends who can walk who have been out “door-knocking” for candidates running for office. (I hear this kind of stuff is really popular in places like Iowa.) But I can’t even do that because I can’t get to your door. I can’t get into my neighbors’ houses to even say hello because their front doors are not accessible.

Why?!

I was able to buy a house that was made accessible, in large part, by the previous owner before I moved in. I have continued to make accessibility improvements in the 10 years I have lived there. I find the fact that hardly anyone has addressed the issue of providing accessibility to single-family homes a little strange because my friends and family who can walk love my accessible house. My house (built in 1957) has been converted in many different ways to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs. I have a large ramp with shrubbery in front of it at the front door. I have another ramp in the garage so I can get to my accessible van. Many of the kitchen counters have been lowered and have open space underneath them so people use wheelchairs can get to the sink and the stove. The vast majority of the doorways to my house are at least 32 inches wide, and I have an enormous concrete deck with a hot tub built-in so someone can either transfer from a wheelchair directly to the hot tub or use the lift I had installed. The house has two bathrooms. One of them has a roll-in shower. The other one has a bathtub. (Most houses built these days would have glass-enclosed showers that would have to be totally ripped out and redesigned if the house were to be used by someone who uses a wheelchair. Many of my family and friends who have stayed at my house have used my roll-in shower without complaint. After all, it is just a shower.) In fact, there is nothing about any of the accessible features of my house that makes them inaccessible to people who do not use wheelchairs. I don’t think most people even notice. More often than not, my houseguests who do not use wheelchairs who walk say they really love the open spaces and wide doors and other access features. So many of my friends who are not tall love the lowered counters. The accessible deck (accessible by French doors from the living room and sliding glass doors from the master bedroom) with ramps to the yard and to the sidewalk that leads up to the gate is fantastic. Why would you not want these features? What is wrong with a “handicap house?”

On top of all of that, it is so much more expensive to make a house accessible after it has already been built to be inaccessible. Even widening a door to make it 32 inches can be an extremely costly endeavor and sometimes almost impossible.

Here is another consideration. Have you ever moved a couch or a bed or a refrigerator? Having a ramp, 32-inch-wide doors and wide-open spaces throughout your house make it much easier to accomplish this task. The moving company that moved me into my house said it was the easiest move they had ever made. What is it about stairs that is so cool? Why do we have them? They seem dangerous. Maybe they are.[3]

Now, of course, no one would INTENTIONALLY exclude us, would they? I mean you have been actively lobbying your state and federal legislators and asked them to require that single-family homes be made accessible, haven’t you? I thought so. You would never want to discriminate against us.

Why haven’t we done that? Are the home builders right? Is there something disgusting about the so-called “handicap house?” Do a couple of grab bars next to the toilet just make you sick to your stomach? Does this all stem from some deep-seated fear that you all might need to use those accessible features in the future and you refuse to accept that?

You really should check it out because you could get your state or local or even national legislators to sign on to the concept of “visitability.”[4] This just means that all houses must be designed and constructed with basic accessibility features, including a zero-step entrance, wide passage doors, and at least a half-bathroom on the main floor that meets basic Fair Housing Act requirements. As the word suggests, the idea behind visitability is to make your home accessible enough that your friends, family and loved ones who use wheelchairs can visit.

Photo of the front of a home with a zero step entrance.

 

This is one of those flat, level entrances I mentioned. Pretty hideous, isn’t it? I mean, who in the world would want to live in a house with that atrocious flat level entry? It is so disgusting!

 

Photo of home with concrete ramp entrance to front door

 

Yuck! Who could live like this? There goes the neighborhood!

 

 

Repulsive! Now we’ve gone too far!

Photo of modern roll-in shower with glass doors

 

 

 

 

Certain U.S. cities and even the United Kingdom have adopted various types of visitability laws that require some measure of very simple accessibility be incorporated into the design and construction of all new housing. Austin, Texas, for example, has an ordinance that applies to any permit for construction of a new single-family or duplex dwelling with habitable space on the first floor and requires that house must meet certain visitability requirements.[5], [6]

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your invitation, but I will not be attending because I can’t get in the front door (or any other door) and I can’t use the restroom. I’m going to my boss’s house. She uses a wheelchair. So does her partner. Their house is pretty darned accessible. I look forward to having Thanksgiving dinner with my friends and colleagues, many of whom use wheelchairs, at my friend’s house. When I go there, I can get in the house, I can have Thanksgiving dinner with my friends and colleagues; I can even use the restroom. Isn’t that crazy? Having people who use wheelchairs come to your house for a holiday gathering? Seems silly, right? I ask everyone reading this who owns a home that is not wheelchair accessible to stop and think how many times you have your friends and family visit you at your home. Now, stop and think about whether a friend or family member who uses a wheelchair could join you. Now, stop and think about what you’re going to have to do when you need accessible features in your house.

And, seriously, I thoroughly understand and completely confess there may be many reasons why you would not want me to be at your Thanksgiving dinner table, but are you really going to use the “my house is not wheelchair accessible” excuse? I mean this is getting old. You know somebody who uses a wheelchair who cannot easily access your house and use basic facilities like the restroom. Admit it! Do you just not invite that person, or do you go through great difficulties getting that person in and out of your house and dealing with the restroom situation?

Happy Thanksgiving! And special holiday wishes to you and yours if you are part of a home builders association that has actively opposed any legislation requiring or encouraging the advancement of visitability features in newly designed and constructed homes. It would be a shame if you hurt yourself carrying a relative up your front stairs for Thanksgiving dinner. And please be careful not to trip on one of those steps.

Maybe I will swing by after all. What are you having for dessert?

 

November 26, 2019

[1] Trust me, this is their language and not mine. I would never use that word in describing a house, but that is what they say.

 

[2] https://www.huduser.gov/portal/publications/PDF/FAIRHOUSING/fairfull.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019).

[3] See “Injuries and stairs occur in all age groups and abilities,” a 2017 article published by Reuters, claiming that, “More than 1 million Americans injure themselves on stairs each year, according to a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine,” at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-injuries-stairs/injuries-on-stairs-occur-in-all-age-groups-and-abilities-idUSKBN1CE1Z4 (visited Nov. 25, 2019).

 

[4] See, e.g., “Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability,” published by the AARP in 2008, at https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/2008_14_access.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019). Page 32 provides a listing of locations that have enacted laws or ordinances. I want to stress that I have not investigated the correctness or authenticity of references to laws or ordinances requiring visitability. The purpose of these references is to allow the reader to get a glimpse of what is possible.

[5] Ordinance No. 20140130-021 R320 “Visitability,” http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=205386 (visited Nov. 25, 2019).

 

[6] See “Accessibility and Visibility Features in Single-family Homes: A Review of State and Local Activity” by Andrew Kochera, published in March 2002 by the AARP Public Policy Institute, a division of the Policy and Strategy Group at AARP. https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/2002_03_homes.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019).


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