“Visitability”- What a Concept!

New home constructionI’m betting that most people didn’t realize that persons with disabilities, whether long term or acquired disabilities historically have been victims of community exclusion for centuries!

One readily achievable concept that has been sweeping the country was founded by a smart, sassy woman who was tired of the status quo. Eleanor Smith, disability advocate from Atlanta, is quoted as saying, “We want to be able to pee, not just at our own houses, but at yours too.”

Visitability is a movement of change related to home construction practices so that virtually all new homes, not merely those custom-built for occupants who currently have disabilities, offer a few specific features enabling those with mobility impairments to live and visit other people. It is affordable, sustainable and inclusive design for integrating basic accessibility features into newly built homes/housing.

The Nuts and Bolts of Visitability

New construction should have:

1) At minimum, one zero step entrance approached by an accessible route in a firm surface proceeding from a driveway or public sidewalk

2) Wide passage doors – 32” clear opening

3) Access to at least a half bath or full bath on the first floor.

In the Beginning

In 1986, wheelchair bound Eleanor Smith was driving around Atlanta and happened to notice some small, newly built Habitat for Humanity homes. She had an epiphany of sorts in that she said to herself, why can’t these homes have basic access for persons with disabilities? It could be done very easily!

Experiencing her disability since the age of three, she knew the pain, isolation and sacrifice. Why should other children and adults continue to suffer and be excluded from the socialization that others take for granted due to lack of basic access in other’s homes? She said, “No more,” and made it her mission to convince builders.

After many grass-roots efforts, including the start of Concretechange.org, several appearances in Disability publications, a movement was begun. Ten disabled persons banded together with six able-bodied Lesbian Feminists for Concrete Change by awarding Eleanor’s group a small grant.

Next, in late 1989, the Atlanta affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, agreed to experiment with building every new home with basic access. By the end of 1990, they had more than 20 homes up with zero-step entrances, effectively and at very low added cost. There were now tangible, brick-and-mortar examples. (As of early 2006, Habitat Atlanta had more than 600 Visitable homes constructed.)

While building momentum, in 1990, a young Japanese architect, a wheelchair-user, came to visit Concretechange in Atlanta, and while conversing about the practices our group was promoting, he said, “In Europe, they use the term Visitability.” Although the exact origin of this term is unknown, it stuck as a permanent label in the US as well.  The icing on the cake was the first Visitability law credited to Myrtle Davis, an Atlanta Councilwoman who crafted a local  ordinance for basic access in certain single family homes. With unanimous approval it created a starting point for change across the country.

The Consequences of Lack of Basic Access to our Friends and Neighbors

  • Social isolation;
  • Compromised health and safety;
  • Forced institutionalization into nursing homes, group homes or making them prisoners in their own homes. Do you recall the TV Commercial, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? Well, add to the scenario the person who acquires a disability later in life, on a fixed income and cannot afford to move or to re-construct their home or wait out the frequent 3- 5 years waiting lists for subsidized accessible housing.

The Shortcomings of the ADA- Again!

Townhouse accessibility The ADA is enforceable for public and municipal buildings versus single family homes. Moreover, two-story townhouses are the most inaccessible type of dwelling for the disabled, second only to Victorian homes. Townhouses are also exempt from the Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines. However, as they continue to be popular forms of public housing and receive HUD funds, they must comply with Section 504 of the Rehab Act in that a paltry 5% must be fully accessible to persons with mobility impairments and a measly 2% fully accessible to those with vision and hearing impairments.

In an article by Beto Barrera, “Death by Townhouse,” discussing this situation in Chicago, he stated that the 5%-2% was routinely “the ceiling and not the floor” when it came to builders meeting requirements, such that 95% of public housing of this type was inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

It’s so easy! Psychologically, it is not only unacceptable to contain and confine people to a small area in which to function, providing basic access is morally the right thing to do in a civilized society. With advanced planning, new construction using the  basic access principles of Visitability:

  • Adding a “no step entrance” combined with wider interior doors costs ~ $300.00 over a crawl space or basement. Such an entrance can also be located at a side or back door
  • VERSUS the Cost of Retrofitting – One Interior Door ~$700.00 (2007 estimate)
  • Cost of Retrofitting to create an entrance without steps -~$3,300.00
  • According to Concretechange.org, the likelihood of a resident in a new home developing along term severe mobility impairment over the lifespan of that home is 60%.

Nine Myths and Facts Regarding Construction for Visitability– Refer to link – http://concretechange.org/visitability/9-myths-and-facts-about-visitability/

Reaching the Eyes and Hearts of the World through Children

What better way to convey this basic civil right and act of dignity and equality than through children, our hope for the future. Many have sought to convey the rights of others and forge understanding. Just to name a few, coloring, activity and story books about the criminal justice system. The same type of book to increase understanding of missing persons, and, a children’s story showcasing Visitability!


Summary of  Libby and the Cape of Visitability by Eleanor Smith and Nadeen Green

VisitabilityThis is the story about Libby, Aria and Benjamin who are best friends. When Aria moved to a new home, Libby, a wheelchair user, did not get invited to Aria’s birthday party due to the new home’s architectural barriers. When they meet Everett, an adult wheelchair athlete, he “takes them down memory lane” concerning the disability civil rights movement of the 1970’s. The friends are so enthralled and inspired they create their own version of visitability barrier free design. They decide to take public action to achieve the goal that every new house would have a step-free entrance and wide bathroom doors. Their good works land them on the front page of the newspaper, and in a heap of trouble too… until they achieve a sweet victory! 










  1. Yes! That first sentence hits the right spot! Many people don’t realize that accessibility problems are basically the same thing as social inclusion problems, or exclusion for that matter. And sadly it’s very hard to get people change their mindset and view it rather in this way, which I believe would be the first step towards improving our over all barrier-free approach. Because until this day, if there is no government, or some other official-place intervention, people don’t take the measures necessary and even when there is one, they will try and do their best to avoid them.

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