Myths and Objections
The following list covers the most common misperceptions and objections about Visitability, followed by the facts. Armed with this information, a Visibility advocate can diffuse most objections.
The “percentage mentality” illogically suggests that the percentage of homes with access should be roughly equal to the percentage of the population who currently have mobility impairments.
- Visiting other people’s homes is as important to people with mobility impairments as it is to others. And, finding the rare accessible house or apartment to rent or buy at the time it’s needed is often impossible when there are few choices. Lastly, it’s not possible to predict which formerly able-bodied person will suddenly need access in their own home.
The dozens of access features detailed in typical home access checklists are equally important, from the mirror placement to the type of cabinets used.
- The three access features that people with disabilities need most in order to visit friends and use their own home are getting in and out, fitting through interior doors, and using the bathroom. All other features, needed as they might be, pale beside these three.
Access looks unattractive.
- Well-planned access is integrated into the home/landscape design and is unnoticeable, or an attractive asset.
Access is expensive.
- In new construction, $0 to $25 per home built on a concrete slab and $300-600 per home built with a basement, are reasonable averages for planned-in-advance, basic access. (In renovation, depending on the situation, adding basic access is usually expensive.)
A zero-step entrance is feasible only on a flat lot.
- When siting a structure and grading the lot with access in mind — using the lay of the land to advantage — a sloping lot is often even easier to work with than a flat lot. (See our photo gallery)
People with disabilities are the only folks who benefit from home access.
- At resale, a home with basic access is available to a wider market, especially in an aging population like the US. And non-disabled residents like wider doors and step free entrances to ease bringing in baby strollers and moving heavy furniture.
Basic home access involves a long list of potentially expensive, burdensome features such as types of cabinets, lowered mirrors, special handles, larger rooms, etc.
- Visitability involves only the essential features that most strongly impact people’s fundamental mobility as residents and their social connection as visitors: getting in and out through one exterior door without any steps, and passing through all main floor interior doors, including the bathroom (with at least a half-bath on the main floor). These are so basic that without them people often cannot return to their home from the hospital after car accident, stroke or other event causing disability. Certain other features (e.g., lowered kitchen cabinets, a roll-in shower instead of a tub, etc.) may be needed by a specific disabled person but may be unneeded or actually unhelpful to another person, disabled or not. A zero-step entrance and wider doors are crucial for all people with major mobility impairments and convenient for non-disabled people.
If we ‘give them’ the basics, then later they will demand more.
- Probably not (see above). Disabled people are as interested in keeping housing affordable as other people are. The reasonable time to decline unreasonable proposals is, if and when they are sought–not because they may be sought in the future.
Few people need basic access to homes.
- The numbers are large when one considers all the children, middle-aged and older people who use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, or are otherwise mobility-impaired by weakness, stiffness or balance problems. Demographic studies show dramatic increases in both numbers and percentages of older people in the US and worldwide. It is indisputable that, while some individuals walk easily in old age, mobility impairments statistically show large increases as people age. Home architecture also heavily impacts non-disabled family members, because steps and narrow doors impose drudgery on caregivers, decrease options for the family to buy or rent homes, and can limit visiting opportunities for the whole family, diminishing contact with friends and extended family.The longevity of the house itself must also be considered. A typical home is occupied not only by the original home buyers, but by the series of future persons who will purchase, rent or visit it for many decades into the future. In fact, a study conducted by the Bureau for Business and Economic Research at the University of Florida estimates that as much as 60% , and very conservatively 25%, of new houses built today at some point will have a resident with a severe, long-term mobility impairment. (“Aging and Disability: Implications for the Housing Industry and Housing Policy in the United States, Journal of the American Planning Association, Summer, 2008.)
The cost of access is high.
- Visitability in most legislation covers only new construction of homes and does not apply to renovations. In new construction, total added cost is typically less than $100 when building on a concrete slab and less than $600 when building with a basement. No added square footage is required. Wider doors can be obtained for, at most, only a few dollars more per door, depending on which wholesale door company the builder uses. Only interior passage doors on the main floor level are covered by most ordinances (not closets, nor second floor doors). Only one of the entrances is mandated to be zero-step, and that can be accomplished at little or no cost on the great majority of lots.
- A cost discussion is incomplete without assessing the cost of not building with access.
- Removing barriers after they are constructed can be extremely expensive: widening one interior door can easily cost $700, and adding a zero-step entrance to an existing home typically costs thousands of dollars.
- Further, the ability to get into one’s home and pass through doors is so basic and essential that it often leads to institutionalizing people who could otherwise live at home.
- The average cost of one year in a nursing home for one person exceeds $70,000, with 60% of total nursing home costs borne by public funds. Family inheritances are being lost as the government confiscates the assets, including the family home, of residents who have run out of personal funds and have used Medicaid funds.
A zero-step entrance can be achieved easily only on a flat lot, or only when building the home on a concrete slab.
- When siting a home and grading the lot with access in mind, a sloping lot is often even easier than a flat lot. Visitability does not require that an entire lot or a driveway be graded to a gentle slope. On steep lots, a usable slope can be constructed from the part of the driveway nearest to the entrance door. Constructing the zero-step entrance from an attached garage to the home is also an acceptable solution. (2/3 of all new houses have attached garages or carports.) As a Universal Design architect once said, when a lot is steep, “Let the car do the climbing.”
- Regarding basements, ordinances have resulted in thousands of homes over basements where builders have used inexpensive construction methods to achieve attractive zero-step entrance. (See the Bolingbrook IL images in the Photo Gallery on this site.)
Water will run into the home through the zero-step entrance.
- Just as water does not run into the new bank or restaurant that has been engineered competently, so water does not run into the new home that has been engineered competently.
Enforcing Visitability laws or codes is difficult and expensive.
- Checking for compliance is simple, because the presence of the zero-step entrance and the widths of interior doors are readily apparent. These items can be added to the checklist used during the inspections currently required throughout the construction process. A small percentage of lots have topographical conditions requiring exemption from the zero-step entrance, and the process for requesting exemption should be delineated in the legislation. Experience in locales which have enforced visitability legislation for several years has show that fewer than 5% of sites required exemption.
My home is my castle. Don’t tell me how to build it.
- Home construction is already, by necessity, regulated for safety and for the public good. Among the hundreds of items regulated are the maximum height of step risers, the minimum distance the home must be set back from the street, and so on — including a minimum width for interior passage doors. In recent years, “green” features such as double-paned windows have been mandated. Zero-step entrances and wider doors increase basic safety for occupants and visitors who have mobility impairment. They lessen the likelihood of falling, and make it easier for first responders to save lives during fires and medical emergencies.
There’s no precedent for Visitability legislation.
- “No precedent” was once the case for every piece of existing legislation. However, significant precedents do exist. Florida passed a state law in 1989 requiring bathroom door widths on the main floor of all new homes to be wide enough for standard wheelchairs to pass through. Since then, Atlanta GA, Austin TX, Pima County AZ, and Bolingbrook IL are among the more than twenty locales that have passed legislation requiring some Visitability features in private, single-family homes. In some legislation, a few additional simple features such as reachable electrical outlets and switches are included as well. (See “Visitability Defined” on this site.) The Federal Fair Housing Act requires basic access in every unit of all multi-family apartment buildings and condos with elevators, whether publicly or privately owned.
People don’t like the look of access. Access is aesthetically unpleasing.
- First, people affected by barriers and their loved ones like the look of access very much. Second, people with no mobility impairments are becoming accustomed to the look and usefulness of universal access as they roll their bicycles down curb cuts, choose the ramp rather than the steps in a movie theater, and take for granted access features in new restaurants, schools, offices, and places of worship. Third, the slightly wider interior doors required by Visitability legislation do not distract visually. Fourth, when picturing unattractive exterior access, people are often thinking of the long and awkward ramps that often must be added on to existing houses that were built without a zero-step entrance. In new construction the exterior solutions to a zero-step entrance involve simply a sidewalk sloping gently upward to replace a step, a garage floor poured level to one entrance, or a short ramp replacing steps at the entrance most feasible for access.
Let the market take care of access. When people ask for it, builders will build it.
- The people who most urgently need these features often have their need emerge suddenly, after an illness or injury. They are in no position to advocate for their needs “on the market.” At the same time, when home buyers who want basic access for themselves or their visitors do request such features while a development is under construction, builders often tell them either that this cannot be done, or that there will be substantial charges for change orders.
- Furthermore, builders don’t just respond to the market, they actively shape it. Builders continually promote new products they can up-sell, actively educating buyers. For instance, a home industry journal recently advised up-selling home electronic technology, noting that “technology is not a high priority among boomers” but if builders enthusiastically promote electronic upgrades, buyers will “become aware of what technology can do for their homes and lifestyles.”
Let builders incorporate access on a voluntary basis.
- Builders have had a many years to make the needed changes voluntarily. For example, in 1978 the Georgia Legislature passed a resolution encouraging basic access to all new homes. Yet in 2008, the vast majority of houses in Georgia and across the country are still being built with narrow bathroom doors and/or steps at every entrance.
- Formal voluntary programs would seem to offer win/win for builders who don’t’ want to be regulated and advocates seeking visitability. — in fact, Concrete Change helped to found one, the EasyLiving HomeCM program. During the first years, we believed such initiatives might make legislation unnecessary . But over many years, and in several states, voluntary programs have not yet even come close to getting significant builder participation. ix Six years of intense work on the part of staff and volunteers inthe EasyLiving Home program sparked participation of only 40 of the 12,000 members of the Home Builders Association of Georgia , yielding fewer than 900 homes, while hundreds of thousands on inaccessible homes were built during the same period. Nor are we aware voluntary program elsewhere that have produced numbers comparable to those produced by legislation.. In 2007 Georgia advocates returned to pressing for new, sweeping state legislation. It appears that policy must lead the way.
Visitability requirements should be accomplished through changing the building code, not through legislation.
- In the past, the home-building industry has defeated efforts at changing code by using their considerable resources to disseminate seriously misleading information and to determine who is at the table in decision-making positions. (As just one example, a 1989 memo from the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, disseminated in a successful effort to stop a code change for wider interior doors, estimated the cost of constructing wider doors in a new home to be $2,500 to $4,700. This exorbitant estimate involved widening the whole house rather than applying the ready solutions–cutting a wider hole in the wall for the door, using a more amenable house plan, or when necessary slightly modifying a plan to remove a few inches from an adjacent room.) A major effort to work through the code in Georgia in 1996 yielded no changes. Certainly working through the code is a potential route to change, but it cannot substitute for legislative endeavors. Working through a legislative body along with pressing for code changes opens the process and discussion to increased public view and participation.
The National Association of Home Builders, the Multi Family Housing Council, the National Association of Realtors and sometimes other industry organizations have consistently opposed Visitability-type legislation.
- They have in the past and may continue to do so. On the other hand, Visitability makes so much sense that to most citizens, these industries will not look good opposing such legislation unless they continue to succeed at obscuring the facts regarding need, costs and feasibility. Once members of the general public understand the need for the Visitability and how easy and inexpensive it is to construct, they often ask . . .
Why would the industry oppose Visitability requirements?
That is a good question. One answer is that the above-mentioned trade groups tend to vigorously oppose any regulation on principle, unless it involves direct benefits to their own industry, in which case they actively seek regulation. Another answer is that builders often like to keep repeating the construction processes they are familiar with, and do not like to train sub-contractors to do things differently unless they see an immediate, short-term financial benefit for their company. Coupled with this are inaccurate assumptions about the cost, difficulty, or appearance of access and unwillingness to seek or accept information that contradicts these assumptions.
Another factor is that builders may want to maintain the short-term financial benefits they accrue by charging for change orders, maintaining a niche market of special senior housing which could be undermined if access were widespread, obtaining financial incentives from public monies for special access programs, or renovating existing inaccessible houses to create access. (The National Association of Home Builders Research Center reports that 24% of the huge annual home remodeling expenditures are modifications for aging in place or mobility impairment.)
Another is that ableism — centuries of messages expressing fear or loathing people with disabilities, and widespread tolerance of inequitable practices — may be a personal factor on the part of some builders, or may influence the builder’s perception of what buyers will feel. (In reality, while ableism is in fact operative in many people, well-constructed access in new homes is unnoticeable to buyers unless they currently desire it.)
It is common knowledge that our population includes a rapidly growing number and proportion of older people, so perhaps the industry trade groups will oppose Visitability legislation with less vigor than they have in the past and work proactively and effectively for change. After all, even builders themselves will not be wealthy enough to modify the homes of their extended family, adult children or best friends should they or a loved one develop a mobility impairment.
Added note 2008: With foreclosures rampant and home-building down, many builders are facing a hard time. But the ease and low cost for the builders of incorporating Visitability features, coupled with the highly negative consequences on the public of current construction practice, makes the mandates imperative.