ABILITY House Magazine Article IllustrationABILITY House: Building Homes and Awareness

“Would someone bring the cripples over here, please!” the volunteer team leader called out. My mouth dropped and my heart began racing. Cripples? Did he really just say cripples? You don’t have to be the most politically correct to know that cripples is about the worst way to refer to people with disabilities. Heck, why didn’t he just call out for the handicapped folks and gimps while he was at it! Almost at once, as the call for cripples pierced the otherwise noisy construction site, the crew leader stopped in embarrassment as he considered his words. Immediately he stood and approached the closest person with a disability within earshot, explaining how one of the small boards used in framing windows is called a cripple—a term assumed to have originated from the fact that it acts as a crutch, of sorts, for the other boards. Later, the same volunteer would hand me a stack of these small boards and wink, asking, “Here—would you please take these shorties over there?”

Step onto any Habitat for Humanity construction site and the images are familiar. First time volunteers adorned with tool belts, hammers, hard hats and safety glasses are working side-by-side with veterans of the trade as they learn the skills necessary to build a house. How-to lessons span a wide spectrum, from how to hammer a nail to how to frame an interior bedroom wall. Beyond the bright red hats that experienced volunteers of the Anne Arundel County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity wear to identify them as team leaders, there is little else that visually sets them apart from those who might be experiencing their first day on a construction site.

This day was no different. The site was bustling with activity. Energetic volunteers were hanging siding, pounding in nail after nail. Another group had lined up to work on the ramp that would make this home accessible to visitors with disabilities. Up on the roof a few more volunteers worked feverishly to complete the shingles before the night’s expected rainfall. Shingle after shingle was placed in line and nailed down with speed and precision.

Among the ranks on this day, there was a vast differential of experience, knowledge and ability. Some home builders had been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity for the better portion of the last decade; others were experiencing their first opportunity to help build a Habitat home. Some had grown up working construction with their fathers and were carrying on a tradition of carpentry; others were learning how to use a drill for the first time in their lives. Their professional backgrounds ranged from retired PhDs to assembly-line workers from a local manufacturing plant. Some could see, others could not.

The project wasn’t a typical Habitat for Humanity construction site, but the location of the third ABILITY House, a program of the nonprofit ABILITY Awareness in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and ABILITY Magazine; this particular ABILITY House was sponsored by UPS, Verizon and USGA. Likewise, the volunteers on this particular day weren’t typical Habitat volunteers, but rather associates of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), each with a varying degree of vision loss, ranging from moderately low vision to legally blind.

The first and most tangible purpose of an ABILITY House is to provide accessible housing for low-income families where one or more members have disabilities, and to raise awareness of the need for visitable housing. The visitability movement asks developers to incorporate into all homes they build—not just those specifically built accessible for a person with a disability—three basic features allowing people with limited mobility to enter and move about the home: at least one no-step entrance; a bathroom on the first floor big enough that someone can enter it using a wheelchair and close the door; and doors and hallways on the first floor wide enough to navigate through (32” and 36” respectively). In addition to these fundamental features, a number of additional aesthetic accommodations can be added to make a home more visitable and improve its value (such as lever door handles and light-switches at a height reachable by everyone). Constructing visitable homes removes barriers encountered by our associates, our children’s school-age friends, our parents and aging grandparents, or anyone who breaks a leg, uses wheeled luggage or moves into or out of a home—in essence, all of us.

The second and third purposes of an ABILITY House build are intertwined and directly related to building awareness of the skills and talents of people with disabilities, first within themselves and then within the community. During an ABILITY House build, people with all types of disabilities are recruited as volunteers—sometimes the first time they have been specifically asked to be the providers and not just the recipients of assistance. Through this experience, these volunteers often broaden their own perceptions of what their abilities are, while reaping the intangible rewards of volunteering and giving back to the community.

After four hours of labor-intensive construction work, the crew was ready for lunch. Throughout the unfinished interior of the home, small circles of hungry home builders had formed as the volunteers made the best of eating lunch while seated on the floor, with stacks of two-by-fours for their tables. In a corner of the house that would ultimately become a child’s bedroom, a blind woman picked up her cell phone and placed a call. “You’ll never guess where I am!” she said eagerly to the listener on the other end. “Nope, guess again…Still wrong, try again.” Quite delighted at the knowledge she had stumped her friend, she said with a grin, “I’m building a Habitat house!” Getting more excited with each breath, she exclaimed, “I’m hanging siding. I didn’t know how to when I got here, but they taught me how! I’m building a house!”

The volunteers from BISM had done something many of them never thought they could do—they helped build a house. At the close of the day, they would take away with them more than just a commemorative t-shirt—they would leave with the sense of contentment that comes from a hard day’s work and a job well done, new skills and a profound realization of the satisfaction gained from joining their community in helping others. They would demonstrate that each one of them possesses an array of skills and abilities that are simply waiting to be developed.

One particularly memorable image was of Tom, an associate of BISM who had volunteered to assist with roofing. As the hours went by, the Habitat crew took turns being surprised by Tom and the ease with which he maneuvered across the roof, as if he’d done it all his life. Never mind that Tom’s precision and accuracy with a hammer far surpassed my own sorry attempts at connecting hammer and nail; more often than not my efforts resulted in sore knuckles and broken fingernails. Within a short period of time, he’d developed a rhythm all his own as he worked to stay one step ahead of the team behind him. While the sighted volunteers next to him meticulously followed a chalk line on the tar paper, Tom used his sense of touch to line each shingle up with the one before it; the result was perfect.

These images of a blind man working comfortably on the roof—and his associates handily building the ramp and hanging siding—illustrated the third purpose of the ABILITY House program: to raise awareness within the community of the true skills and talents of people with disabilities, and the benefit of reaching out to them when recruiting for volunteer opportunities. For those on site who did not have disabilities, the day offered a profound learning experience. “Hearing there would be 12 volunteers on site who were blind, we didn’t know what we were going to do with them. We couldn’t envision how they were going to be able to help build this home,” shared one of the more experienced Red Hats about the anxiety and apprehension the site leaders had felt at the start of the day. But it was this honesty, combined with open minds, willing hearts and positive attitudes, that created an environment where everyone succeeded as a team.

Participation in an ABILITY House build also serves as an opportunity for sponsoring companies to demonstrate their commitment both to their community and to those issues that impact people with disabilities. Over the years, UPS has established itself as a strong corporate member of the community through its support of the Points of Light Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and many other worthy organizations. When UPS received the call to sponsor the ABILITY House project, it offered only one stipulation: that in exchange for sponsorship, its employees be invited to volunteer.

“The UPS Foundation often defers to the wisdom of UPSers in the community to determine whether projects or organizations qualify for UPS help, financial or otherwise. Our involvement with the ABILITY House project in Baltimore was a no-brainer,” noted Matthew Webb, UPS’ Metro DC community affairs manager. “The opportunity to contribute physically and financially made this a good fit for UPS participation. However, the x factor—the thing that made this a great fit—was the uniqueness of the project. This project allowed UPS to contribute to the delivery of the American dream to this great homeowner. Not many projects have the potential to render so great an impact. This one did.”

As another primary sponsor of the ABILITY House, Verizon demonstrated its continued support of people with disabilities. “Verizon has a long standing commitment to our customers with disabilities. This is evidenced by our involvement with the ABILITY House as well as the recent expansion of our Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities to service customers in Maryland, Virginia, DC and West Virginia,” noted Lisa Harrison Burke, marketing director for Verizon.

“I have been a part of the Grumpy Old Men’s Wednesday Construction Crew here in Anne Arundel County for more than five years and have participated in three previous blitz builds—two with Millard Fuller and one a Jimmy Carter Work Project—but I have never had a more rewarding experience than spending the day [on the ABILITY House build],” shared Bill Schummer, an Arundel Habitat board member and regular volunteer.

“Over and over again, I heard the construction staff and Red Hats, many of whom are longtime Habitat volunteers, state that this was by far the best day at a Habitat worksite they had ever experienced. Their eyes are now open to the many abilities that these volunteers with disabilities possess,” said Linda Grey, Arundel Habitat for Humanity’s executive director. “Looking back on this ABILITY House blitz week, I am reminded that God makes each of us with different strengths and weaknesses. Disability doesn’t mean a lack of capability. We have heard that many of the volunteers want to return and help finish the house. Arundel Habitat will welcome them back with gratitude, as we do all our volunteers who give of themselves to help families in need of a decent place to live.”

by Romney Snyder

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