Visitability Defined

 

Visitability is a movement to change 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 making the home easier for mobility-impaired people to live in and visit. Several people have asked for a more detailed definition, noting that the list of required features has not been identical in all Visitability-type legislation, handouts and other materials.

While the concept of Visitability is simple, the definition has several interactive layers: spiritfeaturesscope, and moment in history.

Spirit

First, the spirit of Visitability is as important as the list of features. That spirit says it’s not just unwise, but unacceptable that new homes continue to be built with gross barriers — given the how easy it is to build basic access in the great majority of new homes, and given the harsh effects major barriers have on so many people’s lives. These easily-avoided barriers cause daily drudgery; unsafe living conditions; social isolation; and forced institutionalization. The appropriate ways to further basic access are many: disseminating information; working to pass legislation; incentives (so long as they are moderate and don’t decimate a tax base, impede general affordable housing, or undermine other Visitability efforts); voluntary efforts (so long as they are not programs producing few houses and at the same time forestalling legislation); street theater; advertising campaigns; civil disobedience; and others.

Features

Second, the features list must be partly rigid and partly flexible. The inflexible features are:

  • At least one zero-step entrance approached by an accessible route on a firm surface no steeper than 1:12, proceeding from a driveway or public sidewalk
  • Wide passage doors
  • At least a half bath/powder room on the main floor

No arguments are accepted that “We’ll build the house so a ramp could be added later.”

At least a half bath on the main floor now belongs as a non-negotiable feature, but it did not when the first Visitability legislation was passed in Atlanta in 1992. At that early time in the movement’s history, and in the absence of precedents, passing a bill with a zero-step entrance and door width requirements in private, single-family houses was just barely possible even without the bathroom requirement. Advocates balanced the obvious need for a main floor bathroom with the law of averages that nearly all new dwellings already include that feature.

Several additional features are sometimes included in Visitability initiatives (for example, reinforcement in bathroom walls and accessible placement of electrical controls.) If very low cost, they are good and appropriate. However, these additions must be flexible according to circumstance because they are so much less essential for survival than the three basic features. Each added feature elicits a set of objections and/or misconceptions to be addressed. If the strategy chosen involves enforceable legislation — which is the means by which the great majority of Visitable homes have been created to date — the list of prioritized features must be short. Otherwise, passing a Visitability law is currently impossible.

In voluntary efforts, more features can be included. For instance, they might require, besides the basics, also a full bathroom with designated maneuvering space and a bedroom on the main floor.

Scope

If people add to their personal definition of Visitability advanced features such as a five-foot turning diameter in bathrooms, parking space requirements, a roll-in shower and so on, they are going beyond the scope of what is currently possible for rapid, broad application of Visitability, and we discourage use of the term Visitability for their initiatives. We are not averse to pushing for those advanced features per se, to the extent that they do not pose a credible threat to general housing affordability. Rather, we are against using the term Visitability for additional features because it works against the reason the movement has had some success — its extreme simplicity of content, rigorous prioritization, and insistence on application not just cogitation, speculative homes not special homes.

Moment in History

The scope of the dwellings covered and the time in history of a Visitability initiative, whether voluntary or legislative, are also relevant to defining the flexible, evolving Visitability movement. For instance, a legislative effort requiring some access in even a small percent of private, single-family houses pushed the borders far in the 1992 Atlanta ordinance, whereas the 2000 Pima County AZ and the 2003 Bolingbrook IL ordinances expanded the borders in a major new way by covering ALL new houses, not just those with some sort of public perk. The Pima County ordinance requires only 2’8″ doors, i.e., 30 inches of clear passage space, which is 2 inches less than required by other successful legislation. That was a necessary, intelligent compromise, in our view, since 30 inches is quite helpful (although not nearly as helpful as 32) and the Pima County law covers all houses — a major, unique leap forward in 2000. That law was extremely hard for Arizona advocates to accomplish, barely passed in a 5 to 4 vote. The law was challenged in court – first on a national level, which failed, then in a local level appeal, which also failed. Therefore the law stands, and has produced many thousands of Visitable homes. (The lawsuits were generated and/or assisted by politically powerful housing industry organizations, specifically NAHB and the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.)

The above history touches on the flexible part of scope as it affects features. However, a fixed part of acceptable (legislative) scope is that a legitimate law must contain an enforcement mechanism. We find problematic a document called a law but lacking an enforcement mechanism, so that in practice it is voluntary. We are in favor of voluntary initiatives, recommendations, and education campaigns as long as they are not called laws. When packaged in law-type formats, they tend to undermine other efforts to pass enforceable legislation.

On a smaller scale, any action as small as one person giving a Visitability handout to a builder, or advocating Visitability to a friend buying a new house, is a valuable part of the movement. The actions, large and small, of many thousands of participants are gradually reshaping how homes are built.

— Eleanor Smith, for the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (DRACH) November, 2003