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Habitat and ability homes

Chet Cooper



It was a home blessed from the beginning...

It was a house conceived with the compassion that one man can have towards another man...and so on...and so on. It was a house which was built by human integrity, fortitude and vigor.

It was an event where individuals, corporations and other entities pitched in with contributions, hard work and sweat, all so a man with a disability and his future bride would have a "simple, decent, place to live." It was an accessible home that would be well suited for a modern world where persons with disabilities now number around 54 million and aging "baby boomers" will significantly expand the senior population in the years to come.

The human spirit can be gracious and giving. People with diverse backgrounds and abilities can come together to share and create. The heart is accessible. Misconceptions about persons with disabilities lacking ability to participate can be challenged and erased.

The idea for the first ABILITY House began when Chet Cooper, Founder of ABILITY Magazine, met with Millard Fuller, Founder of Habitat for Humanity. In that interview, ideas were shared and the idea of building an accessible home for a person with a disability, by volunteers with disabilities, was borne. The idea grew to an actuality when the Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity in Alabama decided to become the first Habitat for Humanity "affiliate" to participate. It just so happened that Chris Wright, the home recipient, had applied for ownership of a Habitat house. Chris is a paraplegic who lost use of his legs at age 29 from traverse myelitis - an infection of the spinal cord. Chris was a candidate who would benefit greatly by the construction of an "accessible" home.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "accessible" means a world without restrictive man-made barriers. It is a building adapted to individual as well as public needs. Accessibility facilitates a "visitable" world. Whether you are a design student studying Ron Mace’s concept of "Universal Design" (The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University) or a person with a disability concerned about your needs, independence and a nonrestrictive world environment, the concept of "accessibility" is the way of the future.

Cost, marketability or attractiveness of a building need not be sacrificed to include "accessibility" features. Understanding people’s needs and utilizing good planning in design and product selection can go a long way towards meeting accessibility goals. Aesthetically, "accessibility" can be integrated into home and landscape design so that it is either unnoticeable or even an attractive feature of the property.

Chris Wright will purchase his home for $40,000 with an interest-free loan from Habitat for Humanity. In new construction, accessibility features are generally easier and less costly to implement than when renovating a structure. The Birmingham Independent Living Center cites in Concrete Change that: "In new construction, $200 per house is a reasonable average for planned-in-advance basic access to a home. In renovation, depending on the situation, adding basic access to houses or apartments may or may not be expensive."

In planning buildings with a view towards accessibility for persons with disabilities, designers need to pay attention to priorities. The most important "visitability" needs are entry into the home and fitting through interior doors, especially the bathroom. Persons with disabilities have varying special needs including visual, hearing, speech, cognition, and physical considerations. They may have multiple disabilities. An accessibility designer attempts to accommodate as many of those needs as possible. An example of an "accessibility" feature which has been used successfully in public buildings is elevator design. In buildings that have rows of elevators, a current system is to have a chime and a light to signal which elevator is approaching a given floor. This system has helped not only persons with disabilities but the public in general reach the elevator in time to board it before the doors shut. This accessibility feature has also been a cost saver by reducing the time an elevator needs to visit a floor, making the elevator more efficient and allowing buildings to be built with fewer elevators.

The most commonly seen accessibility features include: curb cuts; ramps instead of stairs; wider doorways and hallways; lever door handles; grab bars in bathrooms (and reinforced walls to support them); roll-in showers; hand-held showers; recessed bathtubs; heights adjusted on counters; cabinets, shelves and chairs with usage needs in mind; "Rocker" light switches; and carpet with shorter pile for ease in maneuvering a wheelchair. Such features in building make sense and we see them more and more in the busy world around us. We may not even be aware of these features in our daily lives until our attention is drawn to them or we become a person who needs to use them. Design elements such as curb cuts help not only persons with disabilities in wheelchairs but mothers pushing babystrollers as well. Accommodating the current needs of the population in this expeditious way is convenient and helpful to us all.

So, let’s go back to the ABILITY House. About a year after the idea was conceived, through hard work and dedication of Habitat for Humanity, ABILITY Magazine, BellSouth, other major sponsors, individuals and volunteers, Chris Wright does have his home. It is a beautiful home with many features which make it an accessible, visitable home. Specifically, Chris’ three-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot home includes a wrap-around deck, a front and back entrance ramp, wide 3’ doorways for a wheelchair to fit through, raised electrical outlets, barrier-free interiors, levered door handles, an automatic door opener, a roll-in shower, lower shelves, adjusted counter heights, a special stove, a carport for Wright’s hand-controlled van, and other accessibility design elements.

The ABILITY House also includes products tailored to meet Chris’ specific needs. Take, for example, the telephone system. BellSouth was one of the major sponsors of the ABILITY House. Chris Wright worked with Ron Talley, a BellSouth specialist at the Telecommunications Center for Customers with Disabilities, to design communication features for Chris’ home. To help Chris communicate with callers at the front or rear doors of his home, BellSouth donated a SMART intercom system. This allows Chris to screen callers and buzz them into his home. Also, Chris’ home features the latest phone technology, including an electronic, remote-control speaker phone and talking caller ID.

The ABILITY House project ran from May 30 through June 4, 1999. The site was a pleasant, quiet residential community in Ensley, Alabama settled in lush greenery. The building crew was a robust team including volunteers, sponsors, onlookers and media. Sounds of hammering, camaraderie and the shouts of instructions given by Habitat for Humanity site supervisors were heard everywhere. The mood was festive but seriously goal-driven. "This is like the old barn raising," said one volunteer, "people coming together to help build." Many volunteers came with their own poignant stories of why they were participating in the ABILITY House. All came with a high level of commitment, energy and goodwill. Generous sponsors provided travel arrangements, lodging, meals and even entertainment at the end of each day’s building. For those who participated, the ABILITY House project and the hospitality of Greater Habitat for Humanity of Birmingham were something to be remembered.

What made this project unique was that participating volunteers had disabilities of all kinds. There were volunteers in wheelchairs who had survived accidents, illnesses and disasters. There were volunteers who had birth defects. There were volunteers with debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes, and volunteers who had life-altering illnesses, such as a stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, or the need for a kidney transplant. There were volunteers who were blind, deaf, and mute. There were volunteers with prosthetic limbs or crutches. There were volunteers who were developmentally disabled, or had mental illnesses such as depression, manic-depression or schizophrenia. There were volunteers with learning disabilities. They all came together for this event not only to help Chris Wright, another person with a disability, build his home but, also, to call attention to the fact that persons with disabilities are often overlooked in terms of their energy, talents, and skills. Persons with disabilities can participate in their communities. They can hold down jobs and be productive. They can contribute to society. They can and should be looked to as employees, volunteers and mentors. The amount of energy demonstrated by the volunteers at the ABILITY house build cannot be surpassed.

Alfred Ragland was born without arms and uses prosthetic arms. At the ABILITY House build he was carrying wood, putting up walls and helping to build the home’s deck. Ragland said that he hoped the project would help erase some misconceptions about people with disabilities. "When I go apply for a job, the guy who’s interviewing me doesn’t shake my hand. He shakes my arm. It makes me feel like a second-class citizen. They are not paying attention to me; they are paying attention to my prosthesis." Tony Perrone, a Veteran in a wheelchair expressed a similar sentiment about going to a job interview. Perrone, who has a Masters Degree, described how people would only see the wheelchair, and not see his qualifications when going for a job interview. Both Perrone and Ragland are with the North Georgia Wheelers and now are involved in computer training for persons with disabilities.

What seemed to be a common theme expressed by the volunteers doing the building was that they wanted to do more and more. Chris Mueller, a volunteer with multiple sclerosis, described the high energy of the volunteers as contagious. Kenny Denton, the National Easter Seals Adult Representative, uses a wheelchair after a disabling auto accident in 1986. Denton expressed a feeling that he wasn’t doing enough, after a morning of hammering and helping with walls. Kenny worked like "a Trojan through the heat and rain" said Sarah Relfe, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity. His hard work was an inspiration for other volunteers. But, as Kenny’s mother told me, that was like Kenny, always wanting to do more and more. He was not expected to recover from the injuries of the auto accident. Kenny, however, came out of a coma and proved his doctors wrong as he continued to progress in rehabilitation. Today, Kenny has a very full life. He has worked hard to achieve this, and is very thankful to Easter Seals and his family who have participated in his recovery. Today, Kenny works as a Film Repair Specialist at the Paul W. Bryant Museum at the University of Alabama after having successfully completed the Vocational Evaluation and Development Job Coach Services programs at Easter Seals. Kenny was trained for the job at the Bryant Museum and is now a specialist at his trade. He was one of the volunteers at the ABILITY House build who had first-hand knowledge of the benefits of having an accessible home for a person in a wheelchair. Kenny’s drive to help was representative of the volunteers. He wanted to help as much as he could, saying it "felt fantastic to build a house from the ground up."

Matthew Seals was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1998 Alabama tornado. That didn’t stop Matthew from participating in almost all aspects of the building. As a former journeyman electrician, he couldn’t wait to help with the electrical wiring of the house. Seals attributed a great deal of progress in his recovery to the help and rehabilitation services of The Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. The high enthusiasm expressed by Chris Mueller, Kenny Denton and Matthew Seals was everywhere at the site. Those not doing the building were cheering on the others, or handing out refreshments and sunscreen.

The proud new homeowner, Chris Wright, and his fiancee Diana Hopkins, had beaming faces. They couldn’t have been more grateful. Chris had contributed already in excess of 300 "sweat equity" hours working with Habitat for Humanity on Habitat projects prior to building his own home. He was able to use his skill as a painter for many of these hours. Chris had worked as a painter for the University of Alabama for eight years when at age 29 he lost use of his legs due to transverse myelitis, an infection of the spinal cord. Formerly, Chris had led a very active life. His disability limited his mobility until he learned how to become more active again despite having to use a wheelchair. Chris is now able to get around driving a van with a lift. His lifestyle continues to be active and he has been able to help take care of his mother, a kidney dialysis patient, and to do many of the things he enjoys, including going to football games, working out at the gym and attending church services. In addition to the new accessible house, Chris and his fiancee will enjoy many house-warming gifts donated by generous local Birmingham, Alabama sponsors.

The importance of the ABILITY House for Chris Wright and others was well-described by Christina Gilmore, Ms. Wheelchair America, 1999, when she said: "...A good friend once told me ‘you cannot experience life from your back porch.’ Looking back, I realize that this friend not only wanted me to experience what life had to offer, but he was also encouraging me to share my accomplishments and depth of experience with the world as testament of the true abilities of those with disabilities. I cannot help but relate the words of wisdom I received from my friend to my experiences with the ABILITY House. In order for anyone to experience the wonders of life, one must mentally and physically be willing to venture out beyond what typically feels comfortable and safe. For most of us this comfort zone has and will continue to be our homes. Mentally, people with disabilities have always been willing to leave their ‘porches’ to experience life and contribute to society, but physically they have not always had the opportunities. Accessible housing has been a difficult challenge for many in the disabled community and it is this challenge that has kept them from truly experiencing the good and the bad that comes with life. Now, thanks to all of the efforts put forth by the volunteers and sponsors of the ABILITY House, Chris Wright now has the opportunity to leave his porch and experience life while also having the freedom to come home again to a place where he feels comfortable and independent."

As author of this article, I met so many interesting participants of the ABILITY House build. I regret that I cannot share all of their stories with you here. I felt incredibly privileged to witness what good can happen when people come together for a well-intentioned, purposeful project as the ABILITY House. Volunteers worked in heat, humidity, rain and wind. They labored hard and long but also celebrated heartily when they could. When it was all over, I had to agree with Kenny Denton, the National Adult Representative for Easter Seals, who expressed feeling so exhilarated and honored to participate, but that when the laboring was over, there was nothing quite like having a home to return to.

by Katie Ferguson

Future ABILITY House projects in the partnership of Habitat for Humanity and ABILITY Magazine are planned. The Birmingham, Alabama ABILITY House was a prototype for those future ABILITY Houses to come. Future ABILITY Houses builds will create a tradition in building accessible housing for qualifying low-income persons with disabilities, by volunteers with disabilities. The ABILITY House projects will take place across the country. For information on how your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate can build an ABILITY House, or for volunteering in or sponsoring future ABILITY House builds contact:
abilitycorps.com

About Habitat for Humanity:
Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller. It is a nonprofit Christian housing ministry dedicated to eliminating substandard housing and homelessness worldwide. Habitat for Humanity makes adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat invites people from all faiths and walks of life to work together in partnership, building houses for families in need. Since its founding, Habitat has built over 125,000 homes.

Habitat for Humanity is able to provide low cost housing for individuals by using a simple plan. Houses are not "give-aways" as the homeowner is expected to pay a reasonable cost for the house and to provide his own labor "sweat equity" in the building of his own house, and/or other houses being built for Habitat for Humanity owners. Habitat for Humanity further keeps costs down for recipients with tax-deductible donations of money and materials from corporations and individuals. House building is done by volunteers. Mortgage payments are channeled into a revolving fund for future houses. The concept has been very successful.

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