by Bill Dupes

Common features in a UD bathroom - Courtesy of Adapted Living Spaces, Atlanta, GAA man's home is his castle; however, many seniors and people with disabilities may feel like prisoners in their own home if they can't get around like they used to.

According to a recent housing survey, 83 percent of Americans age 45 and older would like to live in their current homes as long as possible. However, almost one in four expect that they or someone in their family will have trouble getting around that home within the next five years. Most seniors live in homes that are over 20 years old. As these buildings age along with their residents, they can become harder to live in and maintain. A house that is perfectly suitable for a 55-year-old may have too many stairs or hard-to-reach areas for a 70-year-old.

The solution may be universal design — the latest concept in accessibility modifications that make the home friendlier, safer and more attractive for everyone.

The Vocabulary of Accessibility

Several terms are used to describe accessibility, but they are often confused with one another. The differences in their meaning are subtle but significant.

Accessibility means meeting the minimum criteria set by laws or regulations intended to help people with disabilities, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Typical methods of improving accessibility include widening doorways, clearing space to maneuver a wheelchair, lowering countertops and kitchen cabinets, and installing grab bars. Many designers look for the quickest, cheapest way to make these improvements. Unfortunately, the result is the classic “nursing home” look. In the battle between form and function, form loses.

Adaptable features are similar, but have a key difference: They can be implemented quickly without having to completely redesign the home or use different materials for fixtures. Adaptable items can be concealed until needed, preserving the home's appearance.

Home with accessible ramp - Courtesy of Adapted Living Spaces, Atlanta, GAVisitability features include home modifications for seniors who may want to entertain guests with disabilities or who wish to plan ahead in case they need help later getting around their own homes. Visitable homes, for example, provide a ramp at the front door or a graded landscape to allow access without steps. This also ties in with the concept of aging in place – planning so that all the necessary facilities (bedroom, bathroom, living area, etc.) are located on one level.

Universal design recognizes that people's abilities, and therefore their needs, change over the course of their lives. The design should, therefore, be usable by people of all ages and abilities. Universal design uses ergonomic principles to increase efficiency, reduce repetitive stress to the body, and eliminate barriers and hazards to promote safety, independence and dignity. This is accomplished by incorporating wider halls and doors; barrier-free entrances; adjustable closet rods, shelves and counters; touch switches; and other features into the overall plan.

Many features that are considered accessible and adaptable are also universally usable. For example, round doorknobs are inappropriate for people with limited use of their hands, but lever handles are usable by everyone, including people who have no hands.

Sometimes an ordinary device can reflect universal design simply by placing it in a more practical way to meet a person's needs. For example, lowering light switches and raising outlets to 18 inches above the floor places them within reach of most people without bending or stretching. Bathtub controls located toward the side of the tub, rather than the center, provide the same benefit.

Since universal design offers many advantages, you might wonder why it isn't already standard in homes today. In reality, many architects and contractors still resist the concept of universal design. They feel that it adds to costs and detracts from a home's appearance. While this was true in the past, today's homes with universal features look no different than neighboring homes and are often no more expensive.

The “You Can Pay Me Now … or You Can Pay Me Later” Principle

There are two primary reasons to incorporate universal design features in a home. One is to meet an immediate need, such as accommodating a senior or someone with a disability moving in; the other is to plan ahead to build a home that will fit your needs now and in the future.

If the need is immediate, planning is done quickly, often without adequate research or time to work it into a budget. Working under pressure can also result in the need for rework to correct mistakes.

If you plan ahead with specific needs in mind, however, universal design can add less than 3 percent to the cost of a home if it is incorporated during initial design and construction. Some retrofitted improvements can cost up to 20 times more than the same features included in the original construction. A little creative thinking can also go a long way in saving money. For instance, widening an exterior doorway can cost between $500 and $1,000. But, if only a little more space is needed, a $30 set of special door hinges can provide the extra 2 inches needed for wheelchair clearance.

How Do Home Modifications Affect Resale Value?

Flexibility can increase a home's marketability, particularly to seniors and people with disabilities. This market will become increasingly important over the next 30 years as the portion of the U.S. population over 65 increases from 12 percent to more than 20 percent.

What If I Rent or Own a Mobile Home?

The FHA requires your landlord to allow you to make your residence accessible. You must agree to return the interior of the residence to its original condition when you leave, but you don't have to remove exterior modifications such as ramps. This also applies to mobile homes. For more information, contact HUD at 800/699-9777 or

The height of fixtures is an important element of accessibility - Courtesy of Adapted Living Spaces, Atlanta, GAHow Can I Tell What I Need?

You should try to strike a balance between safety and usability, especially if seniors and/or young children live in the home. For example, you may not want a stove with front controls if your grandchildren visit often. However, many universal design specialists recommend front controls so people in wheelchairs won't have to reach across hot burners.

Before making any modifications, evaluate your current and future needs by going room to room and rating them against a checklist to identify potential problems and possible solutions. Here are some sample checklist items.

  • Does your garage have an automatic door opener?• Are your doors wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair?
  • Does your door have a peephole? Is it at the correct height for you?
  • Is there a step up or down at the entrance to your home?
  • Do you have handrails on both sides of the stairway?
  • Are all floor surfaces safe and covered with nonslip materials?
  • Are cabinet doorknobs, stove controls, and faucets easy to use?
  • Can you get into and out of the bathtub or shower safely?

Comprehensive checklists can be found at several of the Web resources listed at the end of this article. Rebuilding Together and the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modifications (NRCSHHM) are good places to start.

How Can I Pay for This?

A home equity or other bank loan may be one financing alternative, or you may be able to find help through medical insurance, medical and social services, income support, or vocational services. Disability organizations and rehabilitation facilities may also have information on local funding sources.

Check the NRCSHHM Web site for a national directory of housing assistance organizations. Don't hesitate to ask questions; even if one group can't help you, you may get advice that leads to other resources. Private funding may be easier to find than public funding, but you should thoroughly research as many options as possible. You may have to get help from several different sources to get the job done, depending on the extent of work needed.

What Can I Do to Cut Costs?

  • For simple construction projects, friends and family members with building skills can provide inexpensive labor.
  • Some volunteer community groups, such as Habitat for Humanity, will help with home modification or repair.
  • Pace yourself. Make one or two modifications at a time to spread the costs over several years. Start with the modifications you need most.
  • When possible, use standard appliances or equipment rather than customized devices. Instead of an expensive cabinet, a Lazy Susan might work just as well. An old baby monitor can be used as a simple intercom
  • Shop around for everything, from appliances to contractor bids. Check auctions and flea markets. You might be surprised at the variety of available items.

Where Can I Find a Qualified Contractor?

Talk with your family and friends to get recommendations based on their experiences with contractors. Contractors with a good reputation can usually be counted on to do a good job. Accessibility contractors can also be found in the Yellow Pages under “Social Services,” “Disability” or “Accessibility.” Some contractors offer reduced rates and charge sliding-scale fees based on a senior's income. But if an estimate is unexpectedly low, it could be a red flag. Remember: When something sounds too good to be true, it often is.

  • Check with your local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce to see if complaints have been filed against any contractor that you find.
  • Call the ADA Technical Assistance Center ( at 800/949-4232. The center usually has information about contractors and agencies.
  • Ask for references. Not all contractors are familiar with ADA guidelines.
  • Make sure that the contractor has insurance and is licensed to do the work.
  • Get a written agreement that includes only a small down payment and specifies exactly what will be done and how much it will cost (with the balance to be paid when the job is finished).

Floor plan - Courtesy of Adapted Living Spaces, Atlanta, GAWhere Can I Find Accessible Housing?

You can start with the following clearinghouse resources. If that doesn't work, check the Yellow Pages for realty companies that specialize in locating properties with wheelchair access.

Why Is Universal Design Becoming So Popular?

Universal design is increasing in popularity for several reasons.

First, the main benefit of universal design is that it promotes independence and prevents accidents. Research shows that home modifications could prevent 30 to 50 percent of all home accidents – an important factor to consider when you calculate the cost of modifying or building your home.

Second, it looks good. People with disabilities don't feel like they're settling for a personal nursing home.

Finally, we all want more comfort and convenience in our homes, whether we are disabled or not. People live longer than they used to, which means that more of us are living with disabilities. The traditional home that serves you well now, while you're healthy, won't be so user-friendly when you're older or if you lose a hand or a leg. People are beginning to realize that they need homes that will grow old with them.

Related Resources

Federal Resources

Administration on Aging
Area Agencies on Aging (AAA)Provide services to enable seniors to continue living independently, including information, referral, insurance counseling, and care management. 800/

Department of Veterans Affairs
Offers the Specially Adapted Housing Grant and the Special Home Adaptations Grant. The VA can also help with buying, adapting, or repairing a vehicle.
800/827-1000 or 202/872-1300

Federal National Mortgage Association
Fannie Mae Affordable Housing Solutions

Offers products and services for people with special housing needs.

Housing and Urban Development
HUD Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities

A one-stop resource for information on buying, building or modifying a home for veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Internal Revenue Service
Publication 502: Medical and Dental Expenses
Includes a complete list of items you can and cannot deduct as medical expenses, including ramps and other home modifications. Check with your local IRS office or tax attorney for details.

May offer coverage for some types of home modifications.

US Department of Agriculture
AgrAbility Project Helps farmers assess buildings and equipment for modifications and helps them find financing solutions.

Last updated: 08/18/2014
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