“Gaining An Accessibility Perspective For Aging In Place Design From Where We Sit”

There’s an old expression having to do with perspective or vantage point. When someone states “from where I sit,” they are talking about their viewpoint or how they see what is going on. If they are stalled in traffic, it’s behind the wheel and looking at traffic from where they are in it. If they are at the ballpark, it means looking at the game and how they feel it is going from where they are seated. If they are are watching a game on TV, it means what they are able to see and appreciate from their seat in their living room or den. If they are on the team but seated on the bench on the sidelines, they have that vantage point. If they actually are in the game, they get to see the game in a way that most people don’t.

Where we sit in relation to something we are watching, experiencing, or taking an interest in (politics for instance) affects how engaged we are in that situation. To experience what it is like to enter and navigate our own homes and those of our clients using a wheelchair, walker, or just having reduced mobility encounter- as well as what others in that same position might be experiencing – let’s conduct a little sensitivity exercise.

To set the stage, a typical wheelchair seat is nineteen inches from the floor. A typical desk chair or kitchen chair measures eighteen inches from the floor – roughly the same, especially those that can be adjusted higher. An older toilet is going to be in the fourteen-fifteen inch range, while newer ones are sixteen inches plus. ADA recommends seventeen-nineteen inches in height.

What we are going to do to conduct this exercise is use a regular desk or kitchen chair to simulate a wheelchair. We might have access to a wheelchair, and that is fine to use as well. A chair will suffice for everyone else and will actually illustrate what we are trying to experience.

To begin, take the chair and place it in the driveway near the sidewalk that leads to the front door. Then sit in it. Any issues? Is the sidewalk surface continuous, in good repair, with no breaks in it? Is it relatively smooth? Do we think we could get our chair (if it actually was a wheelchair or walker) from the driveway to the porch or stoop without major difficulty? If we see challenges, this would be a great place to start with our list of recommended improvements. This falls under the heading of visitability and deals with someone being able to get to the front door of a home (the one they live in or one they are visiting). Unless they can easily and safely get to the door, they can’t go inside. It’s that simple.

Next, move the chair to in front of the entry door. Are there steps that must be climbed? If so, what is the workaround or fix for this issue? Is there a wide porch or stoop on which to wait for the door to open for us? Is it sufficiently covered to provide weather protection? This is important for anyone coming to the door whether using a mobility device or not.

Essentially, from where we sit in trying to gain access to our own home – and by extension any other home we might visit or those owned by our clients – what challenges, if any, do we notice that are barriers to safe, comfortable, or convenient entry to the home. Few homes actually provide barrier-free access. If we find that our home is barrier-free, this is great, and we can see what is important to look for as we visit other homes. We can conduct this same exercise when we visit client’s homes to gain an appreciation for work that might need to be done to that home before even getting to any issues on the inside.

Then, in our own home, we should take our chair and place it in the foyer, the hallway, the bathroom doorway, inside the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom, the laundry room, the garage, and any other area in the home we go. When we visit a client’s home where a wheelchair, cane, or walker already is in use, we will be in a position to appreciate what they are experiencing and can observe them using their assistive devices or ask them about issues or concerns they have.

The chair exercise is designed to give us an up-close look at what others might be experiencing in using their homes so that we can suggest realistic solutions to help them navigate their homes more effectively. Beginning from where we sit, we can understand more of what is going on and what needs to be done to improve our own homes and those of our clients.

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