The effects of a spinal cord injury are immediate, life-changing, and different for everybody. While one person may need to learn to use crutches and orthotics to get around, another may need to drive a power chair using a sip-and-puff controller. One person may have debilitating pain and spasms while another will not. However, one thing that everybody with a spinal cord injury has in common is the need for an accessible place to live.
An accessible living environment is a crucial component of living a healthy life with a spinal cord injury. There are many benefits of having an accessible home. Safety and independence are perhaps the most important benefits. An inaccessible home is an unsafe home. Having ramps, a main-floor bedroom, and unobstructed points of egress are vital in cases of emergency. Bumping down a flight of stairs during a fire or a power outage is not an optimal situation. The same features that make a house safe also allow for greater independence. Having the ability to independently go outside or somewhere quiet inside to do work or a hobby is important for both physical and mental health.
In addition to safety and independence, a person’s health can be significantly impacted by accessibility. An accessible kitchen and bathroom will make living with a spinal cord injury much easier. An accessible kitchen allows people with paralysis to either cook independently or direct caregivers to cook what they want. Secondary complications of spinal cord injuries like diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be mitigated by cooking and eating fresh healthy food. Not to mention, cooking is a hobby for many people and an accessible kitchen allows people to participate in a fun activity. Accessibility in the bathroom is also an important facet to living healthy. For instance, bowel programs are generally faster and more effective when done using a shower/commode chair or an accessible toilet. Anything that speeds up a person’s daily routine is a welcome addition. An accessible way to bathe, whether a roll-in shower or a bench to transfer to, can be faster, more relaxing, and more dignified than a bed bath. Good hygiene is necessary to maintain skin integrity along with general health and well-being. Finally, an accessible sink and vanity allows for proper oral hygiene as well as doing any other tasks such as doing one’s hair or makeup.
Unfortunately, remodeling an existing home to make it accessible is an expensive and sometimes impossible endeavor. Ramps often cost in excess of $1,000, and interior modifications like kitchens and bathrooms can easily surpass $10,000. To further exacerbate the problem, the probability of having a disability increases as an individual’s salary decreases. In many cases the people who need accessible modifications the most are the least likely to be able to afford them. Obstacles like narrow hallways and loadbearing walls can also prevent modifications from being made. In apartment buildings, landlords often resist modifications because of the cost, forcing residents to find other accessible housing which is not always easy to find. Changes must be made locally and nationally to improve access to accessible housing, as well as to provide reasonable funding for people with disabilities to live in their own homes rather than being forced into nursing facilities.
There is a bright side, however. Many builders now offer communities and home models that allow for accessibility. Age-in-place homes are increasingly popular among older people looking for homes that will accommodate their needs as they age. Some cities now require newly built homes to have at least one ground-level access point, and for closets to be stacked on top of each other so that they can be easily modified to accommodate an elevator. It is much easier and cost-effective to build an accessible home from the ground up rather than retrofitting an existing property. This is a trend that is necessary and hopefully sustainable.
Building accessible homes and communities is a benefit to everybody. Most people will either develop a disability themselves, or know somebody who will. Whether the disability is temporary or permanent, an accessible world is an easier world for everybody to live in.
Written by Mike Franz
Mike is a C6 quad from Michigan who has been injured 16+ years.