was a home blessed from the beginning...
It was a house conceived with the compassion that one man can have towards
another man...and so on...and so on. It was a house which was built by
human integrity, fortitude and vigor.
It was an event where individuals, corporations and other entities pitched in with contributions,
hard work and sweat, all so a man with a disability and his future bride
would have a "simple, decent, place to live." It was an accessible
home that would be well suited for a modern world where persons with disabilities
now number around 54 million and aging "baby boomers" will significantly
expand the senior population in the years to come.
The human spirit
can be gracious and giving. People with diverse backgrounds and abilities
can come together to share and create. The heart is accessible. Misconceptions
about persons with disabilities lacking ability to participate can be
challenged and erased.
The idea for the
first ABILITY House began when Chet Cooper, Founder of ABILITY Magazine,
met with Millard Fuller, Founder of Habitat for Humanity. In that interview,
ideas were shared and the idea of building an accessible home for a person
with a disability, by volunteers with disabilities, was borne. The idea
grew to an actuality when the Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity
in Alabama decided to become the first Habitat for Humanity "affiliate"
to participate. It just so happened that Chris Wright, the home recipient,
had applied for ownership of a Habitat house. Chris is a paraplegic who
lost use of his legs at age 29 from traverse myelitis - an infection of
the spinal cord. Chris was a candidate who would benefit greatly by the
construction of an "accessible" home.
For those unfamiliar
with the term, "accessible" means a world without restrictive
man-made barriers. It is a building adapted to individual as well as public
needs. Accessibility facilitates a "visitable" world. Whether
you are a design student studying Ron Maces concept of "Universal
Design" (The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University)
or a person with a disability concerned about your needs, independence
and a nonrestrictive world environment, the concept of "accessibility"
is the way of the future.
or attractiveness of a building need not be sacrificed to include "accessibility"
features. Understanding peoples needs and utilizing good planning
in design and product selection can go a long way towards meeting accessibility
goals. Aesthetically, "accessibility" can be integrated into
home and landscape design so that it is either unnoticeable or even an
attractive feature of the property.
Chris Wright will
purchase his home for $40,000 with an interest-free loan from Habitat
for Humanity. In new construction, accessibility features are generally
easier and less costly to implement than when renovating a structure.
The Birmingham Independent Living Center cites in Concrete Change that:
"In new construction, $200 per house is a reasonable average for
planned-in-advance basic access to a home. In renovation, depending on
the situation, adding basic access to houses or apartments may or may
not be expensive."
In planning buildings
with a view towards accessibility for persons with disabilities, designers
need to pay attention to priorities. The most important "visitability"
needs are entry into the home and fitting through interior doors, especially
the bathroom. Persons with disabilities have varying special needs including
visual, hearing, speech, cognition, and physical considerations. They
may have multiple disabilities. An accessibility designer attempts to
accommodate as many of those needs as possible. An example of an "accessibility"
feature which has been used successfully in public buildings is elevator
design. In buildings that have rows of elevators, a current system is
to have a chime and a light to signal which elevator is approaching a
given floor. This system has helped not only persons with disabilities
but the public in general reach the elevator in time to board it before
the doors shut. This accessibility feature has also been a cost saver
by reducing the time an elevator needs to visit a floor, making the elevator
more efficient and allowing buildings to be built with fewer elevators.
The most commonly
seen accessibility features include: curb cuts; ramps instead of stairs;
wider doorways and hallways; lever door handles; grab bars in bathrooms
(and reinforced walls to support them); roll-in showers; hand-held showers;
recessed bathtubs; heights adjusted on counters; cabinets, shelves and
chairs with usage needs in mind; "Rocker" light switches; and
carpet with shorter pile for ease in maneuvering a wheelchair. Such features
in building make sense and we see them more and more in the busy world
around us. We may not even be aware of these features in our daily lives
until our attention is drawn to them or we become a person who needs to
use them. Design elements such as curb cuts help not only persons with
disabilities in wheelchairs but mothers pushing babystrollers as well.
Accommodating the current needs of the population in this expeditious
way is convenient and helpful to us all.
So, lets go
back to the ABILITY House. About a year after the idea was conceived,
through hard work and dedication of Habitat for Humanity, ABILITY Magazine,
BellSouth, other major sponsors, individuals and volunteers, Chris Wright
does have his home. It is a beautiful home with many features which make
it an accessible, visitable home. Specifically, Chris three-bedroom,
1,000-square-foot home includes a wrap-around deck, a front and back entrance
ramp, wide 3 doorways for a wheelchair to fit through, raised electrical
outlets, barrier-free interiors, levered door handles, an automatic door
opener, a roll-in shower, lower shelves, adjusted counter heights, a special
stove, a carport for Wrights hand-controlled van, and other accessibility
The ABILITY House
also includes products tailored to meet Chris specific needs. Take,
for example, the telephone system. BellSouth was one of the major sponsors
of the ABILITY House. Chris Wright worked with Ron Talley, a BellSouth
specialist at the Telecommunications Center for Customers with Disabilities,
to design communication features for Chris home. To help Chris communicate
with callers at the front or rear doors of his home, BellSouth donated
a SMART intercom system. This allows Chris to screen callers and buzz
them into his home. Also, Chris home features the latest phone technology,
including an electronic, remote-control speaker phone and talking caller
The ABILITY House
project ran from May 30 through June 4, 1999. The site was a pleasant,
quiet residential community in Ensley, Alabama settled in lush greenery.
The building crew was a robust team including volunteers, sponsors, onlookers
and media. Sounds of hammering, camaraderie and the shouts of instructions
given by Habitat for Humanity site supervisors were heard everywhere.
The mood was festive but seriously goal-driven. "This is like the
old barn raising," said one volunteer, "people coming together
to help build." Many volunteers came with their own poignant stories
of why they were participating in the ABILITY House. All came with a high
level of commitment, energy and goodwill. Generous sponsors provided travel
arrangements, lodging, meals and even entertainment at the end of each
days building. For those who participated, the ABILITY House project
and the hospitality of Greater Habitat for Humanity of Birmingham were
something to be remembered.
What made this project
unique was that participating volunteers had disabilities of all kinds.
There were volunteers in wheelchairs who had survived accidents, illnesses
and disasters. There were volunteers who had birth defects. There were
volunteers with debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes,
and volunteers who had life-altering illnesses, such as a stroke, rheumatoid
arthritis, or the need for a kidney transplant. There were volunteers
who were blind, deaf, and mute. There were volunteers with prosthetic
limbs or crutches. There were volunteers who were developmentally disabled,
or had mental illnesses such as depression, manic-depression or schizophrenia.
There were volunteers with learning disabilities. They all came together
for this event not only to help Chris Wright, another person with a disability,
build his home but, also, to call attention to the fact that persons with
disabilities are often overlooked in terms of their energy, talents, and
skills. Persons with disabilities can participate in their communities.
They can hold down jobs and be productive. They can contribute to society.
They can and should be looked to as employees, volunteers and mentors.
The amount of energy demonstrated by the volunteers at the ABILITY house
build cannot be surpassed.
Alfred Ragland was
born without arms and uses prosthetic arms. At the ABILITY House build
he was carrying wood, putting up walls and helping to build the homes
deck. Ragland said that he hoped the project would help erase some misconceptions
about people with disabilities. "When I go apply for a job, the guy
whos interviewing me doesnt shake my hand. He shakes my arm.
It makes me feel like a second-class citizen. They are not paying attention
to me; they are paying attention to my prosthesis." Tony Perrone,
a Veteran in a wheelchair expressed a similar sentiment about going to
a job interview. Perrone, who has a Masters Degree, described how people
would only see the wheelchair, and not see his qualifications when going
for a job interview. Both Perrone and Ragland are with the North Georgia
Wheelers and now are involved in computer training for persons with disabilities.
What seemed to be
a common theme expressed by the volunteers doing the building was that
they wanted to do more and more. Chris Mueller, a volunteer with multiple
sclerosis, described the high energy of the volunteers as contagious.
Kenny Denton, the National Easter Seals Adult Representative, uses a wheelchair
after a disabling auto accident in 1986. Denton expressed a feeling that
he wasnt doing enough, after a morning of hammering and helping
with walls. Kenny worked like "a Trojan through the heat and rain"
said Sarah Relfe, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Habitat for
Humanity. His hard work was an inspiration for other volunteers. But,
as Kennys mother told me, that was like Kenny, always wanting to
do more and more. He was not expected to recover from the injuries of
the auto accident. Kenny, however, came out of a coma and proved his doctors
wrong as he continued to progress in rehabilitation. Today, Kenny has
a very full life. He has worked hard to achieve this, and is very thankful
to Easter Seals and his family who have participated in his recovery.
Today, Kenny works as a Film Repair Specialist at the Paul W. Bryant Museum
at the University of Alabama after having successfully completed the Vocational
Evaluation and Development Job Coach Services programs at Easter Seals.
Kenny was trained for the job at the Bryant Museum and is now a specialist
at his trade. He was one of the volunteers at the ABILITY House build
who had first-hand knowledge of the benefits of having an accessible home
for a person in a wheelchair. Kennys drive to help was representative
of the volunteers. He wanted to help as much as he could, saying it "felt
fantastic to build a house from the ground up."
Matthew Seals was
paralyzed from the waist down in a 1998 Alabama tornado. That didnt
stop Matthew from participating in almost all aspects of the building.
As a former journeyman electrician, he couldnt wait to help with
the electrical wiring of the house. Seals attributed a great deal of progress
in his recovery to the help and rehabilitation services of The Lakeshore
Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. The high enthusiasm expressed by Chris
Mueller, Kenny Denton and Matthew Seals was everywhere at the site. Those
not doing the building were cheering on the others, or handing out refreshments
The proud new homeowner,
Chris Wright, and his fiancee Diana Hopkins, had beaming faces. They couldnt
have been more grateful. Chris had contributed already in excess of 300
"sweat equity" hours working with Habitat for Humanity on Habitat
projects prior to building his own home. He was able to use his skill
as a painter for many of these hours. Chris had worked as a painter for
the University of Alabama for eight years when at age 29 he lost use of
his legs due to transverse myelitis, an infection of the spinal cord.
Formerly, Chris had led a very active life. His disability limited his
mobility until he learned how to become more active again despite having
to use a wheelchair. Chris is now able to get around driving a van with
a lift. His lifestyle continues to be active and he has been able to help
take care of his mother, a kidney dialysis patient, and to do many of
the things he enjoys, including going to football games, working out at
the gym and attending church services. In addition to the new accessible
house, Chris and his fiancee will enjoy many house-warming gifts donated
by generous local Birmingham, Alabama sponsors.
The importance of
the ABILITY House for Chris Wright and others was well-described by Christina
Gilmore, Ms. Wheelchair America, 1999, when she said: "...A good
friend once told me you cannot experience life from your back porch.
Looking back, I realize that this friend not only wanted me to experience
what life had to offer, but he was also encouraging me to share my accomplishments
and depth of experience with the world as testament of the true abilities
of those with disabilities. I cannot help but relate the words of wisdom
I received from my friend to my experiences with the ABILITY House. In
order for anyone to experience the wonders of life, one must mentally
and physically be willing to venture out beyond what typically feels comfortable
and safe. For most of us this comfort zone has and will continue to be
our homes. Mentally, people with disabilities have always been willing
to leave their porches to experience life and contribute to
society, but physically they have not always had the opportunities. Accessible
housing has been a difficult challenge for many in the disabled community
and it is this challenge that has kept them from truly experiencing the
good and the bad that comes with life. Now, thanks to all of the efforts
put forth by the volunteers and sponsors of the ABILITY House, Chris Wright
now has the opportunity to leave his porch and experience life while also
having the freedom to come home again to a place where he feels comfortable
As author of this
article, I met so many interesting participants of the ABILITY House build.
I regret that I cannot share all of their stories with you here. I felt
incredibly privileged to witness what good can happen when people come
together for a well-intentioned, purposeful project as the ABILITY House.
Volunteers worked in heat, humidity, rain and wind. They labored hard
and long but also celebrated heartily when they could. When it was all
over, I had to agree with Kenny Denton, the National Adult Representative
for Easter Seals, who expressed feeling so exhilarated and honored to
participate, but that when the laboring was over, there was nothing quite
like having a home to return to.
by Katie Ferguson
Future ABILITY House
projects in the partnership of Habitat for Humanity and ABILITY Magazine
are planned. The Birmingham, Alabama ABILITY House was a prototype for
those future ABILITY Houses to come. Future ABILITY Houses builds will
create a tradition in building accessible housing for qualifying low-income
persons with disabilities, by volunteers with disabilities. The ABILITY
House projects will take place across the country. For information on
how your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate can build an ABILITY House,
or for volunteering in or sponsoring future ABILITY House builds contact:
About Habitat for Humanity:
Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1976 by Millard and
Linda Fuller. It is a nonprofit Christian housing ministry dedicated to
eliminating substandard housing and homelessness worldwide. Habitat for
Humanity makes adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and
action. Habitat invites people from all faiths and walks of life to work
together in partnership, building houses for families in need. Since its
founding, Habitat has built over 125,000 homes.
Habitat for Humanity is able to provide low cost housing for individuals
by using a simple plan. Houses are not "give-aways" as the homeowner
is expected to pay a reasonable cost for the house and to provide his
own labor "sweat equity" in the building of his own house, and/or
other houses being built for Habitat for Humanity owners. Habitat for
Humanity further keeps costs down for recipients with tax-deductible donations
of money and materials from corporations and individuals. House building
is done by volunteers. Mortgage payments are channeled into a revolving
fund for future houses. The concept has been very successful.
in ABILITY Magazine
click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or
get a Free Digi Issue and read the full magazine, and see all of the
photos, just by clicking "Like" on our
More stories from Abraham Lincoln issue:
Abraham Lincoln and Depression
ABILITY House - Birmingham
What Do Women Really Want?
AM too... You can also get a complete digital issue of ABILITY Magazine, for Free, with a Like on our Facebook.