Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Feminist Argument for Visitability

Most folks have no clue what “visitability” means, and the American building industry would like to keep things that way. And yet visitability is THE clear architectural expression of real community building, real breakdown of environmental paternalism, and a tangible weapon in eliminating class barriers. Visitability should absolutely have a home on the feminist disability rights policy agenda.

What is visitability? Well, last Monday, November 19, I met with the woman who came up with the idea back in 1988. Eleanor Smith was an ADAPT activist helping to fight for accessible buses back then, and one day she had an idea, which was: what if all HOMES were accessible? And what if federal, state and local regulations could make them so?

Visitability, as conceived by Eleanor and the people at her organization, Concrete Change, is the idea that all new homes should have three things: one zero-step entrance at the front, side or back of the home; a bathroom or half bathroom on the entry level; and at least 32 inches of clearance on interior doors. Simple. If a builder does this when building a home, not only does it save thousands of dollars on later modifications for physical impairments, but it does the following:

• Provides more housing options for women with disabilities who must escape a violent/abusive living environment *FAST*
• Saves single women and mothers from potential financial ruin due to the cost of modifications, should a member of the household become physically disabled
• Allows all people to actually visit one another’s homes, to go trick or treating or have a party or check out your child’s playmate’s home---ending social isolation, the number one foe of women and girls with disabilities

Visitability does not mean building fully accessible homes, but it improves the social flow of who is able to actually go into each others’ homes. As an ADAPTer I have heard several women with disabilities say that they don’t know their neighbors because their neighbor has one step at every entrance to their home. One step.

So why do builders hate the whole visitability thing? Good question. When Concrete Change has been able to have talks with individual builders, the builders often are open minded to the idea of visitability. Concrete Change actually partnered with Habitat for Humanity Atlanta to build 800 visitable homes in the area, to date. People like the mother whose son got shot, became a paraplegic, and came to live with his mother are extremely grateful for the visitable features.

And, Eleanor and two collaborators published an article in the summer 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Planning Association titled “Aging and Disability,” which demonstrated that over the lifetime of an American house, there is a 60% chance that that house will have a resident with a disability. The article is fantastic and has gotten almost zero buzz. What is going on?

It seems that really, the problem is that builders just wanna build what they wanna build. According to the JAPA article, “Visitability legislation is controversial because it raises issues regarding the individual rights of property owners, the civil rights of disabled persons, and the proper role of government.” Builders have contested and continue to contest every ordinance (in Atlanta, San Antonio, Chicago, Lafayette CO and the states of Georgia, Texas and Kansas). The National Association of Home Builders isn’t down with visitability. I guess they like making stairs... Well really, I see it as a problem of perception.

And yet I see that visitability works, as clear as day, when Eleanor took me around the housing development where she herself lives, where all the homes are visitable. I can see for my own self that everyone, from little tiny crip kids to really old folks, can get in and out of these homes, even though it’s built on a combination of flat and hilly lots. It is a regular type of housing development with toys and plants and autumn leaves scattered around.

And I can see the visitability just as clearly when Eleanor took me over to a Habitat development, also on both hilly and flat lots. Worried about a slope? Put the driveway at the tope of the grade and have the accessible entrance be on that side. Worried that the houses will be ugly? These homes are cute and if they do have ramps, the ramp is integrated in the design. I would personally love to be able to live in such a development with my disability community friends and have us be able to visit each other all the time. Here is a picture of a Habitat home built on a slope:

Blue and white Habitat home with a driveway and ramp built on a slope

I think that not to use visitability in home design cheats America, and in particular it cheats women.

There is policy designed to mandate visitability across the US, and it is called the Inclusive Home Design Act, first introduced in 2003 by Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. This bill would require a zero-step entrance, 32 inches of clearance for doorways on the main floor, and a bathroom that can accommodate wheelchairs in all new single-family homes built using federal dollars. Note the using federal dollars bit---it doesn’t cover homes built using entirely money.

So while I know that right now, folks are scared about the economy and jobs, and that polticians are going to be full-frontally focused on that for quite a while, I urge feminists with and without disabilities to put visitability and measures such as the Inclusive Home Design Act on your agenda. Do this not only for people with disabilities and seniors, but for all women. Talk to anyone you know who is building a home or homes, and explain how they can make the world better for women by using three simple concepts.

Many thanks and warm wishes to Eleanor and Barb and Concrete Change in their work, and particularly thank you to Eleanor for your time in educating me (and recommending a play to stay while in Atlanta!). Here is a picture of Eleanor in front of a visitable home, holding up the ADAPT DUHcity action tshirt (our last action was about housing):

Eleanor Smith holding up a green ADAPT t-shirt in front of a condo house with autumn leaves on the sidewalk


In closing, I would also like to dedicate this post to disability rights activist Ricki Landers, who passed away a week ago. Ricki was a warrior with Salt Lake City ADAPT and such a tough woman that she once held up an entire intersection on her own in her struggle to free her ex-husband from a nursing home. Ricki, your scratchy voice and your drive will be missed, and I will always remember your yelling at the cops to COMMUNICATE with me in front of the state legislature in Nashville. FREE OUR PEOPLE!


Writes Like A Girl said...

I am so glad that you did come to visit Atlanta. I have been very frustrated with my own health and loss of mobility and participating in the discussion with you and the others at Charis that night reminded me that the best way to cope is through activism. Thank you so much for all the work that you do. It means a lot to me.

AmberFRIDA said...

Hi Writes Like a Girl,
Thank you very much for your comment and I am very glad you were able to come to Charis as well. I just want to point out that there also is the work of a lot of other people who are making a difference for feminist disability rights...a lot of people thinking and taking action...we just have to figure out how to link them all up and kick ass! I hope that you do continue your activism and that it only gets stronger over time.
Thank you again,

Anonymous said...

This is a great idea. I have noticed that some visitors choose to walk our ramp rather than use the stairs. MMMMM
I have begun to carry a set of suitcase ramps so I can visit my sons. While one son is on a slab foundation, there is still than one stem and then the slightly raised door entry. My other son has 2 or three steps from the garage entry, more from the outside enties. It is a factor for visiting.
am posting anonymously because your identity chooser will not accept my url

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