Wednesday 2 September 2015

The Power of Architecture to Enrich Lives - VisitAble Housing

Imagine this:

You are a new mother and you visit your neighbor for tea with your baby in his carriage.  The baby is sleeping, but the entrance is flat and the doorway is wide enough to push through, leaving your infant undisturbed and content for another hour.  You smile and breathe a sigh of relief.  Two years later, you break your leg.  Your Mom comes to help out.  She does the shopping and the meals even though she uses a cane due to arthritis. But that’s no problem because both you (on crutches) and your Mom (with her cane) come and go easily through the stair-less entrance.  You both appreciate the ground floor bathroom.  Years later, your children now in school, you apply for and get your dream job.  Your boss is a wheelchair user and having him to dinner is no problem because your home is accessible to everyone who visits, no matter how they roll.  

This isn’t a dream – it’s a design movement with a lot of brains and momentum behind it.  It’s called VISITABILITY.   The seeds of design inspiration were sown in 1986 by Atlanta native, Eleanor Smith.   Smith and her colleagues launched an initiative called “Concrete Change” – a local ‘Habitat for Humanity’ community for people with physical disabilities and their families. They realized that although some of the houses in the community were planned to be accessible for residents with physical disabilities, those residents would not be able to visit their neighbours due to the inaccessible design features of homes not serving wheelchair users. Concrete Change founders suggested that Habitat for Humanity apply a set of basic accessibility features in every home in the housing project. Eleanor Smith and her colleagues learned that the term ‘Visit-ability’ was being used in England for a similar concept and later adopted the term for those basic accessibility features that they promoted.  A worldwide movement for accessible housing was born.
VisitAble homes have three basic accessibility features:
  1. No-step entrance (at the front, back or side of the house )
  2. Wider doorways and clear passage on the main floor
  3. A main floor bathroom (or powder room) that can be accessed by visitors who use mobility devices

Apart from these features, home design can be whatever the homeowner wishes.  VisitAble Housing principles do not affect the second floor of housing design.

In Canada, The Canadian Centre on DisabilityStudies has taken the lead in championing VisitAble design by launching TheVisitability Project.  Its aim is to promote VisitAble housing for all Canadians, including persons with disabilities and seniors.  The project promotes adoption of accessible design principles among buyers, builders and policy makers as well as awareness amongst the general public about the many positive benefits of VisitAble Housing for people of all ages and abilities.

I asked our son Nicholas about his opinion on VisitAble Housing.  We talked about his frustration when he couldn’t visit friends after school because of architectural barriers.  We reminisced about the great times when neighbours invited us for impromptu family pot-luck dinners – and we went, because their homes were accessible.  Our family life is richer because of VisitAble Housing design principles.  I hope the movement grows in depth and influence over the coming decades.  I want to be able to visit my grandchildren and my friends, wherever they live!

For more information on the Visitability Project in Canada, go HERE.
For more information on Visitability in the USA, go HERE

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