Early History


The Beginnings of Concrete Change

One day in 1986 I was driving around in Atlanta, Georgia, my home city, and I passed though a large development of new houses. As usual, there were steps at every entrance. But this time I saw the houses differently: “These homes could have all had access!”

I had driven past typical homes thousands of times since my disability came about at age three. I had paid the price of lack of access over and over again, when I could not go to friends’ parties, suffered from being unable to get my wheelchair through bathroom doors when visiting, faced great difficulty finding an apartment or house I could rent. In fact, I had lived for six months in a home where I had to crawl on the floor to enter the bathroom. And I had seen wheelchair users looking out from behind the screen doors of their inaccessible, rampless homes and walker-users sitting on their porches with no way to come down into their yards.

Nothing had changed in that moment in 1986 except a flash of noticing. (For influencing that mental jump forward, I thank the national organization ADAPT. Their rallying cry during the 70’s and 80’s, “A lift on every new bus!”, and the experience of pressing for change alongside a large group of disabled people, prepared my leap: “A zero step entry on every new house!” Over the next few months I realized that widespread change in housing construction depended on continuously focusing on the few construction barriers that create by far the most harm – lack of a zero-step entrance, narrow interior doors, and lack of access to a bathroom.

I brought this conviction to a small, local disability group, and we named our initiative “Concrete Change.” At that time we were not yet using the term “Visitability” for the three essential access features, but rather ‘Basic Home Access”. We made fliers, contacted and re-contacted building groups, and wrote articles. (None of us had heard yet of the Universal Design movement or the late Ron Mace, who founded that movement – nor had Universal Design proponents heard of our work. But in recent years the two movements often have worked together, since we share significant commonalities.)

Gradually word about Concrete Change work spread, mainly through articles in small disability magazines such as The Disability Rag, The Mouth and Mainstream, and through word of mouth in the disability rights movement. During those early years, nearly all builders and architects we approached, both for-profit and non-profit, told us “It can’t be done (for X Y Z technical reason).” “It’s not needed.” “You’ve got to be kidding. This will never happen.” We persevered, and I do mean “we” not “I”–a band of about ten people with disabilities, with a support group of six able-bodied women, Lesbian Feminist Concrete Change. The Fund for Southern Communities, a regional grant-making organization committed to funding small groups who have good ideas outside the status quo, gave us our first small grant, and we clapped so loud at our meeting that our two dogs in the yard started howling.

We began to gain victories — that is, to have actual homes deliberately built with basic access for people who do not have disabilities. Our first victory was in late 1989, when the Atlanta affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, to their great credit, agreed to experiment with building every new home with basic access. By the end of 1990, they had more than 20 homes up with zero-step entrances, effectively and at very low added cost, and we had tangible, brick-and-mortar examples to point to. (As of early 2006, Habitat Atlanta has more than 600 Visitable homes constructed.)

We began to get inquiries from other places. In 1990 a young Japanese architect, a wheelchair-user, came to visit Concrete Change in Atlanta, and while conversing about the practices our group was promoting, he said, “In Europe, they use the term Visitability.” I was immediately excited about this term, since automatically it makes people think “every house, not just special houses.” Back then it was deeply assumed that only people who are currently disabled need access features in their homes — unfortunately still too often assumed. So, any term shifting that assumption was valuable. I tried to find these elusive Europeans, to learn more about how to keep moving from concept to reality, but could not find them and in fact still haven’t discovered who originated the term.

In 1991, we approached Myrtle Davis, an Atlanta City Councilperson, with a rough draft of an ordinance that would require basic access in certain private, single-family homes in Atlanta. Working together with the advocates, she shepherded the ordinance through to unanimous approval by the Council in 1992, and it became the first Visitability law in the US.

Since those early days, the participants in Concrete Change and the Visitability movement have expanded to many states, in steadily growing waves. Participants are initiating state and local Visitability laws, handing out materials at conferences, speaking up in their local media, lobbying their local Habitat for Humanity affiliates, protesting at a Parade of (upscale) Homes that lack access, showing the Concrete Change DVD and PowerPoints to local groups, passing out balloons that say “Every Home Visitable,” and in general working as individuals or in small groups to make change.

— Eleanor Smith, 2003