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Expert Insight Addresses Challenges of Finding an Accessible Home

Flexibility can be key to finding – or making – a home that meets the needs of a person with a disability.

For people who have sustained a spinal cord injury or brain injury, finding accessible housing can be a challenge. While the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 has made things a little easier for people with disabilities, many housing units are exempt from the law because of their age. Also, many builders either don’t know the laws or do not comply with them.

Fortunately, there are organizations, like disABILITY LINK, as well as the peer support team at Shepherd Center, that can help. There are also things you can do to help yourself.

Links to Accessible Housing Resources

“When someone acquires an injury, everything is heavy on them,” says Minna Hong, peer support manager at Shepherd Center. “It’s the fear of the unknown. But the people who fare well are the ones who have the audacity to ask questions and work with other people.”

Karen DeVault, who sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI) as a teenager, has moved from state to state twice since her injury. For her, it’s important to recognize that diplomacy is key in finding accessible housing.

“I went into it fairly bull-headed believing that there was accessible housing, or if it wasn’t accessible, they had to make it accessible,” DeVault recalls. “I think that’s a faulty move for anybody pursuing housing, specifically if they’re going to be renting. The best approach to take is to be diplomatic in anything you do and not come into it telling people what they’re going to do for you. You really have to get out there to let them see that you’re a person and let them see what is and isn’t going to work.”

Looking for housing in person is important for both the person who’s looking and for the housing provider.

“Don’t send someone to do it for you,” advises Sir Allen Pegues, a therapist and disabilities assessor who collaborates with Shepherd Center. “No one else can do it like you can,”

Mark Johnson, director of advocacy at Shepherd Center, agrees.

“You have to see it and go through it yourself to ensure it’s really something you can function in,” Johnson says.

This is especially important for those who have a newly acquired disability because many housing agents aren’t that familiar with what it means to be fully accessible, Johnson says and what’s accessible depends on who needs it.

“Everybody’s needs are different,” says Joseph D. Frazier, chairman of Metro Fair Housing Services. “For example, I need a roll-in shower, but I don’t need lowered kitchen or bathroom countertops because I can’t use them.”

And while the home itself may be accessible, the immediate surroundings may not. It’s important to check out the home, and to move around the community and see if it’s navigable.

“I had numerous times where the apartment was accessible, but often there would be no curb cut to the sidewalk for me to get to the front door,” DeVault says.

It’s important to have a list of questions when you visit various communities.

“As you look around, ask yourself, ‘Are there ramps to most places, like the leasing office?,” Pegues says. “Can you get to your mailbox? How do they deal with trash? Do they have a valet, or do you need to take it yourself?”

DeVault also recommends checking out nearby transportation options.

“If you plan on getting around via public transit, see if there is transit close by,” she says. “How many transfers, if any, does traveling to the areas you need to get to require? Will that work for you?”

Johnson suggests that when searching for places to visit, many websites, like Zillow, allow the seeker to specify which accessible features they need. Other sites, like Lowe’s, make it easy to find the accessories you’ll need to make your new home more accessible.

Remember, it’s often easier and cheaper to make a place accessible to your needs than to find one that already has everything in place.

“I think it’s easy, when you go into an apartment or house, to focus on the big-ticket items, like a perfect roll-in shower, or countertops that you can use,” DeVault says. “I found those are the least of my worries. The big thing was how taxing is it to get in and out of my front door, making sure that I can use the sink. There are a lot of small things that you can fix if you go to The Home Depot.”

Hong says a little adaptation and flexibility can go a long way.

“I tend to adapt to my environment rather than spending a lot of money making it adapt to me,” Hong says. “Instead of redoing my entire kitchen, we took the door underneath the sink out so I can do the dishes. So I just have a rod with a curtain to cover the inner workings of the sink.”

You also can work with your housing agent to turn either an existing house, or one under construction, into something you can live in comfortably. Your strategy may need to change based on whether you’re planning to rent or buy.

“If you’re looking to rent and the agent says they don’t have anything that will meet your needs, you can ask them to show you what they have so you can at least use your wheelchair to look,” Frazier says. “If it falls under the Fair Housing Act, and if there is some reasonable modification they can make, they have to allow you to pay for making that modification. If you’re looking to purchase, you can try to catch a single-family development in progress. If you request to look at the floor plan, you may be able to make modifications as it is built.”

While searching for housing can be challenging, going into it with a plan can make it easier and more rewarding. If you continue to hit roadblocks or believe you might be encountering discrimination, you can always call Metro Fair Housing for help.

Here are links to some helpful resources:

Written by David Terraso