Accessibility for Visitors: A Design Approach to Aging


Housing and community planning need to be reevaluated in light of the aging population and the rise in people with physical disabilities. For example, houses not designed for people with mobility issues due to illness, injury, or old age are a significant barrier to their independence. How do I find the best age calculator?

It’s not just embarrassing to have to be carried up the stairs, but there’s also the risk of falling on the steps leading up to the house if it isn’t accessible. “Visitability” refers to ensuring that all newly constructed homes are equipped with basic accessibility features in a cost-effective, environmentally responsible way and welcoming to all people.

All newly constructed apartments and condominiums with four or more units have had to install accessible units since 1988, thanks to the Fair Housing Amendments Act. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated extensive improvements to the accessibility of all federal, state, and local government structures.

However, the remaining part of the built environment not regulated by federal law is detached single-family homes and townhomes, where most of the population resides. There are currently no accessibility standards in place. The same fundamental accessibility barriers, such as steps at every entrance and narrow doors to bathrooms, are still used in constructing private houses and townhomes today.

Concrete Change’s Eleanor Smith sparked the Visitability Movement in the United States to promote legislation mandating the inclusion of accessible features in newly built single-family homes.

The movement demands the following three accessibility requirements be met:

* One accessible entrance with no steps from a public sidewalk or driveway.

* Doorways with a minimum width of 32 inches.

* A wheelchair-accessible powder room on the ground floor.

Every new home can accommodate those with special needs if these three conditions are met during construction. Visitability features considerably facilitate tIn addition, the ability to visit friends and family and participate in community activities.

The Price of Being Seen

Twenty-five percent to sixty percent of today’s new homeowners will experience some form of mobility impairment in their lifetimes. Muscle weakness, dizziness, joint stiffness, or using a wheelchair are all examples. In addition, nearly all modern homes have narrow bathroom doorways and steps leading up to the front door. As a result, the homeowner’s risk of falling is significantly increased, and the first responders’ ability to successfully treat medical emergencies may be jeopardized, all because of the home’s design.

An estimated 1.8 million seniors (those 65 and up) visited emergency rooms in 2005 due to fall-related injuries, with 460,000 requiring hospitalization. Sixty percent of nursing home residents come to these facilities from hospitals after experiencing a severe health event such as a fall, stroke, or heart attack. One can only assume that many people are not returning to their homes after experiencing an accident because of the lack of accessibility caused by the fact that most homes have steps at all entrances and narrow doors to bathrooms.

See below for a breakdown of how much it would cost to have Visitability installed in a brand-new home versus an existing one. The price of nursing care is indicative of the high cost of “doing nothing.” (Maisel, Smith, and Steinfeld, 2008, “Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability”)

Remodeling for In-Home Visits

* No steps required for entrance on concrete slab-$100 extra

* Crawl space or basement entrance -up to $600 more

The price of a 32-inch door goes up by $2 for a 34-inch one.

Add $98, on average, for tourist attractions, depending on where you live.

Add 1% to the total price of a project for the national average cost of Universal Design features.

Current Capability for Home Visits Retrofit

* Access with no stairs—$3,300 extra

* Add $700 per door to widen the interior (plus $22 for a swing-away hinge).

*Add $15,000–$25,000 for a home elevator.

Price of a Nursing Home

* One year in a nursing home costs $85,000

*In 2005, Americans spent US$122 billion on nursing homes (60% covered by public programs like Medicare and Medicaid).

*Direct medical costs related to falls among older people totaled US$19 billion in 2010. (Maisel, Smith and Steinfeld, 2008)


Communities all over the United States are preparing to provide services for their rapidly expanding senior populations. Meals-on-wheels, home healthcare, hospice-at-home, physical therapy-at-home, and senior transportation-from-home are some of the most prominent home-based programs because of the high demand and low supply of affordable senior housing.

However, home-based programs will fail without providing essential accessibility in the home. Mobility-impaired seniors benefit greatly from having friends and family visit them at home. Seniors who cannot leave their homes on their own accord or use the restroom whenever they feel the need to do so are at increased risk of social isolation, depression, and illness. Everyone, including seniors, people with disabilities, visitors, caregivers, and emergency responders, benefits from having access to visitable homes.

Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change first advocated for Atlanta homebuilders to include Visitable features in their new construction in the late 1980s; she encountered fierce resistance. Finally, habitat for Humanity took the feedback to heart, and now more than 800 homes in the Atlanta area can be visited.

Adopted in 1992, the Atlanta Visitor’s Ordinance

Atlanta is the first city to adopt a Visitability ordinance, which mandates that all developers who receive city subsidies for single-family homes, duplexes, or triplexes must include a zero-step entrance and wide enough interior doors.

Tucson, Arizona’s Pima County, passed an inclusive housing ordinance in 2002.

A zero-step entry, wide doorways (at least 34 inches), lever door handles, reinforced walls in bathrooms for grab bars, switches no higher than 48 inches, and 36-inch-wide hallways throughout the main floor were all mandated by a groundbreaking ordinance in Pima County, Arizona.

The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, filed a lawsuit against Pima County in 2003, challenging the constitutionality of the county’s Visitability Ordinance. The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously rejected a challenge from Tucson homebuilders who sought to overturn a law requiring minimal access in newly constructed single-family homes in Pima County. It’s estimated that by 2008, there were 15,000 vacation homes in Tucson.

Bolingbrook, Illinois’s 2004 Visitor Access Regulations

Initially, Bolingbrook passed a voluntary Visitability ordinance that did not go over well with developers. Bolingbrook enforced its law mandating that Visitability standards construct in all new homes to ensure builders’ compliance.

* At least one accessible entrance with no stairs

Clear doorway width of 32 inches

Wheelchair access to one of the main-floor bathrooms is available.

There are currently 3,600 Visitable single-family homes in Bolingbrook.

Housing and Accessibility Act of 2009

Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced a bill requiring all new single-family homes and townhouses built with federal funds to meet Visitability standards. Currently, many people with disabilities cannot live in or visit newly constructed single-family homes and townhouses because 95% lack accessibility features. The legislation was reintroduced in 2010 by Representative Schakowsky.

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