In the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman unwittingly caught up in an international drug smuggling plot and forced to fight off Alan Arkin, who plays a deadly intruder in her apartment. In a situation that may seem hopeless, Hepburn’s character levels the playing field by breaking (almost) every light bulb in the flat, plunging Arkin’s character into the same darkness she lives with every day.
So maybe it’s just a scary movie, but for some reason I often think about it when reflecting upon accessible housing. Maybe it’s because today we can all be glad that people don’t have to go to such lengths to create spaces that can be used with equal ease, regardless of ability. In fact, an accessible home can mean a better life for all occupants.
One of the best new guides I have run across to achieve this goal is The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities, by Deborah Pierce. The structure of this handbook is smart. Pierce leads off with the necessary definitions and then introduces readers to the accessible home from one activity to the next (living and dining, dressing and sleeping, etc.). She then leads readers on tours of 25 real accessible homes, dealing firsthand with the practical solutions needed by very different individuals and families.
To some real estate professionals, accessible housing remains a niche. But for the forward-thinking pros in the know, this is the future of housing. As Pierce notes, healthy active adults have a one-in-four chance of becoming disabled for at least three months at some point in their lives. And while aging in place is becoming a priority for older home buyers, younger home owners still want to accommodate family and friends visiting their homes, regardless of mobility issues.
Being able to point out features that make these desires possible is part of your job as a real estate professional in today’s market. And in contrast to the home with the clunky lift tacked on to the front steps as an afterthought, a truly accessible home sees measurable increases in property value and attracts a larger pool of interested buyers. Being sensitive to accessibility can also help you steer sellers looking into pre-sale or staging modifications away from changes that will unnecessarily narrow the market or make the home more difficult to navigate.
Something that surprised me again and again as I read this book was the long list of accessible design features that I didn’t automatically lump into the accessibility category. These are common in old homes and new homes, and you should be ready to point them out in your listings as a marker of a home that welcomes all, regardless of ability.
- Sidelights running the length of a door may let the sunshine in, but they also allow a wheelchair-bound person to see who’s at the door before they open it.
- High-contrast walkways are visually striking, but they also make it easier for sight-impaired people to navigate.
- Windchimes offer those with low visibility a cue that they have arrived at an entrance to the home.
- A bench outside the main entrance can provide a seat upon which mobility-challenged visitors can rest and wait for homeowners to open the door.
- Covered landings and porches are homey, but also allow for more comfortable assisted entrances and exits during inclement weather.
- Getting rid of decorative room dividers not only makes it easier for people with limited mobility to get around, it also makes the home easier to keep clean.
- An open floor plan makes for better ventilation, improves sight lines, and makes it easier to hear what’s going on.