Living with a Disability: Creating a Home Space to Thrive

First Republic Bank
January 22, 2021

Every year, many Americans consider remodeling their home to improve its accessibility. According to the CDC, over 61 million Americans live with disabilities. Additionally, the baby boomer generation, numbered around 71.6 million from Census data, is aging, and many prefer to live at home rather than a senior care facility.

To do so, they may need to make some changes that enable them to move more comfortably in their space. Renovating a home for accessibility requires a thoughtful approach, with an eye toward both functionality and enjoyment. That can help provide those living with disabilities or physical limitations with a more enjoyable, livable space, as well as aid independence and dignity.

Adapting ADA for the Home

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which had a significant impact on enabling Americans with disabilities to thrive. At its core, the ADA is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities in a wide variety of areas of public life: jobs, schools, transportation, and all places (both public and private) open to the public.

While the ADA does not cover strictly private residences, such as apartment complexes and homes, the ADA outlines accessibility requirements for public spaces, which can be used as a guideline for private homes.

If you’re the loved one of a family member with a disability, turn to them to get a better understanding of the specific challenges and where a remodel can be most helpful. According to Easter Seals, a non-profit that works to advance the rights and needs of Americans with disabilities, here are some structural and layout changes to keep in mind:

  • Add a ramp or a ground-level entrance. If someone is in a wheelchair, this is essential. But even for those with walking aids, a flat entryway makes it much easier to get in and out of the home.
  • Ensure flooring is level throughout the main floor of the home. Again, for those who cannot walk freely, minimized disturbance from steps and level changes allow for a safer and more comfortable home.
  • Wide hallways and doorways are necessary to accommodate wheelchair usage.
  • A bathroom with a wide hallway and enough space for a wheelchair to make a full revolution makes getting in and out seamless.
  • Lastly, U or L-shaped kitchens are ideal — with low enough countertops for easy access.

Of course, certain disabilities might need more specialized remodels, and each one needs to be tailored.

Customizing to One's Needs

Understanding how to renovate your home for your individual needs takes time. Ricki Kohn, from RK Media Solutions, has gained expertise on this from living with Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, for over 40 years. As her condition has evolved, and her movement has become more limited, she’s made changes to her California home.

When she’s not in her residence, Kohn uses a wheelchair. But within her home, she uses walking aids to transition from room to room. For Kohn, maintaining balance as she walks means she needs a wall, a bar, a piece of furniture — something to grab onto if needed. In addition, she needs space in each room to place her walking aid.

As a result, she’s opened up her two-story home to make movement more free-flowing. In addition, in her kitchen, she’s brought working surfaces to a lower height so she can prep meals with greater ease.

“These are things I’ve learned over time about what my body needs, as it needs it,” she says, explaining that living with a disability could mean making continuous alterations with age.

For instance, cerebral palsy patients might benefit from a sliding bedroom door to help with closing the door independently. Grab bars throughout the bathroom will give them support as they do their daily personal care routine. Installing a pull-out bar in the closet can also help with the daily task of getting changed.

For those with limited mobility, adding an extra entrance to gain access to the backyard can greatly improve their overall quality of life. Many people with disabilities are often confined to one part of the house. Widening hallways and doorways can make a significant change. Additionally, a lift system might be crucial in helping them move from room to room, or outside.

Perhaps an extensive home remodel is not possible at the moment. For those with aging parents, some smaller improvements can be made that will pay off later. Remodeling a bathtub into a roll-in shower is a relatively minor change that will be useful later in life. In the same way, reimagining a ground floor room into a guest suite can also be a smart move to make space for an elder later in life. Starting these improvements earlier on will make the process more manageable.

Reimagining Design

As accessibility in remodeling becomes more common, a design movement called Universal Design is gaining more popularity. The National Disability Authority Centre for Excellence in Universal Design describes it as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

Seven principles guide this movement, including Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use. The aim is to integrate accessibility into all design, as well as reduce the stigma sometimes associated with disabilities.

While all these remodeling options are mostly functional, there is also a push to make them more aesthetically pleasing. A recent exhibition in 2017-2018 at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum called “Access + Ability” featured items that were both well-designed and functional. Aesthetics and accessibility came together in products such as a shower system, bathing wand, and an updated walking cane.

Resources for Financing Home Upgrades

Remodeling and adapting one's home to cater to a family member with a disability can be expensive, particularly if those requirements arise unexpectedly. Funds may be available through non-profits and organizations that help families meet the challenges disabilities sometimes present. In addition, there are also financial tools that can allow for these changes.

A personal line of credit, for one, allows access to a flexible set of funds through your financial institution. First Republic’s personal line of credit consists of a two-year draw period, during which the borrower makes interest-only payments, followed by an amortization period (or repayment period), during which the borrower makes full principal and interest payments for the remainder of their term. With a personal line of credit, you only pay interest on the amount you choose to draw down, and the funds can be used for a variety of purposes.

Alternatively, a home equity line of credit (HELOC) is a secured loan against the equity you have in your home. First Republic's HELOC provides a ten-year draw period, during which a borrower is required to make interest-only payments on the borrowed amount. Following that, borrowers have up to a 15-year repayment period, to repay the loan's principal. HELOC’s also offer higher line amounts versus PLOCs.

As your needs change, it's important to keep your living space changing with them. Home updates require attention both to function and maintaining a beautiful home. As you navigate the changes that will ensure your and your family's quality of life, there are resources and organizations available to help — and to assist in easing the financial burden.


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