Want to make home more livable for someone experiencing intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD)? When it comes to providing home improvements for accessibility, most of the information you’ll find refers to obvious solutions, like wheelchair ramps*. But there are less visible home accessibility solutions that can make life markedly better for people with I/DD and they may not be on your radar.
*If you do need to know how to build ramps for home accessibility, you can find good information at the Home Wheelchair Ramp Project ).
Assess Accessibility Needs
Of course, the first step in planning for home improvements for accessibility is to ask the person with the disability what they need. But for that to work well, the individual with the disability needs to know exactly what difficulties they face, which tools or resources can help, and how to communicate that—all tasks that can be especially difficult for people experiencing I/DD. “The barriers to accessibility faced by people with intellectual disabilities are not always apparent and, therefore, require exploration and clarification,” Professor Shira Yalon-Chamovitz writes in her publication, Invisible Access Needs of People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Conceptual Model of Practice (Ono College, Israel). She identifies the four main accessibility challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities as:
Pace: Multiple studies have reported that people with intellectual disabilities have relatively slow reaction and processing times.
Complexity: Complex instructions, products with many parts or ones that require several steps to use can all be barriers for people with intellectual disabilities.
Literacy: Studies show that 87% of people with intellectual disabilities function at the lowest level of literacy skills.
Stigma: At first glance, stigma doesn’t seem like a physical access issue, but it can keep people with intellectual disabilities from fully integrating into residential communities.
Consider Universal Design
Luckily, there are simple ways to address the barriers above—and to make homes more accessible to all, not just people with intellectual disabilities. Universal Design, as defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” By using Universal Design, you can create environments for people of all ages and abilities, without having to use products or design that are “special” (and therefore expensive). Think wider doorways, level handles on door and sinks, and electrical outlet you don’t have to bend down to use.
Universal Design’s seven core principles assist everyone, but may be especially helpful when creating home accessibility solutions for people with I/DD, as they address the challenges of pace, complexity, literacy, and even stigma:
- Principle 1: Equitable Use – Provides the same means of use for all users, which encourages inclusion and lessens stigma. Example: one gently sloped entrance (used by everyone) vs. a ramp and stairs (segregates users).
- Principle 2: Flexibility in Use – Accommodates all by offering choices for users. Example: An adjustable desk.
- Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use – Eschews complexity while ensuring all users can understand how to use or operate. Example: pictograms in place of written information.
- Principle 4: Perceptible Information – Allows all users to access information, regardless of ability, experience, or literacy. Example: a talking microwave
- Principle 5: Tolerance for Error – Minimizes hazards and the consequences of mistakes. Example: a door that shuts slowly.
- Principle 6: Low Physical Effort – Requires little effort to use. Example: a lamp that can be turned on by just a touch (rather than twisting a knob)
- Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use – Provides easily navigable space and allows all users to reach and manipulate objects. Example: Countertops of varying heights.
You can integrate some of these principles at little or no cost. For example, provide more space by using side tables on either side of a couch instead of a coffee table in front; replace any knobs (doors, sinks, etc.) with lever handles; increase lighting in dark areas; use color contrast at any changes of level; consider motion sensor lighting, and /or make pictograms for microwave or stove instructions.
Money for Home Accessibility Solutions
Though using Universal Design may save you the cost of specialized equipment, you’ll still spend money retrofitting a home. The following may help ease any financial burden:
- Tax deductions – You may be able to deduct the cost of certain “medically necessary” home improvements, listed in this IRS publication under “Capital Expenses.”
- Oregon Special Needs Trust Accessibility Grants – According to their website, applications “are open to any person with a disability for home or vehicle modifications, adaptive equipment or technology, communication devices or durable medical equipment needed to increase accessibility at home, work, school or in their community. The maximum Accessibility Grant award is $2,000.”
- ReFIT – This Portland-based nonprofit provides no-cost home modifications services to people who fit their criteria.
- USDA Rural Housing Home Repair Grant and Loan Program – Low-income earners in eligible rural areas may be able to receive grants and/or loans which can be combined for up to $50,000 in assistance.
In addition, the Northwest Access Fund lists a number of nonprofits, grants and potential government assistance for home accessibility improvements.
ALSO Improves Access, Increases Independence, & Promotes Inclusion
At ALSO, we strive to give people with I/DD independence in all facets of life, from home accessibility to supported employment. We work to provide information and education (like this article) that can help our community grow and thrive. We believe in choice, in full community, and in person-centered service. Contact us today to learn how we can assist you.