ABILITY House – Building Homes and Awareness

Circa 2003
ABILITY House blind volunteers on the roof and working on side paneling
ABILITY House blind volunteers working on the roof and side paneling

Would someone bring the cripples over here, please!” the volunteer called out. My mouth dropped and my heart began racing. Cripples? Did he really just say cripples? You don’t have to be the most politically correct to know this is about the worst way to refer to people with disabilities. Heck, why didn’t he just call out for the rest of the handicapped people and gimps while he was at it! As quick as the call for cripples seemed to pierce the otherwise noisy construction site, the volunteer heard his own words. Immediately he stood and approached the closest person with a disability within earshot of the request. There, he began to explain how one of the small boards used in framing windows was called a cripple, which is assumed to have originated from the fact the piece of wood is small and acts as a crutch, of sorts. Later, the same volunteer would hand me a stack of small boards. “Here,” he said with a wink, “would you please take these shorties over there?”

Step onto any Habitat for Humanity construction site and the images are familiar. First time volunteers adorned with tool belts, hammers, hard hats and safety glasses are working side-by-side with veterans of the trade, as they learn the skills necessary to build a house. How to lessons span a wide spectrum from how to hammer a nail to how to frame an interior bedroom wall. Beyond the red hats that distinguish the experienced volunteers of the Anne Arundel county affiliate of Habitat for Humanity—and for which they are respectfully referenced there is little else that visually sets them apart from those that might be experiencing their first day on a construction site.

Volunteers from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland practice using power drills before beginning work on the wheelchair accessible ramp.
Volunteers from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland practice using power drills before beginning work on the wheelchair accessible ramp.

This day was no different. The site was bustling with activity. Energetic volunteers were hanging siding, pounding in nail after nail. Another group had lined up to work on the ramp that would make this home accessible to visitors with disabilities. Up on the roof a few more volunteers worked feverishly to complete the shingles before the night’s expected rainfall. Shingle after shingle was placed in line and nailed down with speed and precision.

Among the ranks on this day, there was a vast differential of experience, knowledge and ability. Some had been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity for the better portion of the last decade; for others it was their first experience building a Habitat home. Some had grown up working construction with their fathers and were carrying on a tradition of carpentry, others were learning how to use a drill for the first time in their lives. The professional backgrounds ranged from retired PhDs to people who worked on an assembly line for a local manufacturer. Some could see, others could not.

This isn’t a typical Habitat for Humanity construction site, but the location of the third ABILITY House which is being sponsored by UPS, Verizon, USGA and ABILITY Magazine. Likewise, the volunteers on this particular day aren’t your typical volunteers, but rather associates of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), each one with a varying degree of vision loss. ranging from moderately low vision to legally blind.

ABILITY Houses are built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity International and their purpose is three-fold. The first and most tangible purpose of an ABILITY House is to provide accessible housing for low-income families where one or more members has a disability, and to raise awareness of the need for visitable housing. Visit ability focuses on incorporating universal design concepts into all homes, not just those specifically built accessible for a person with a disability. The primary visitable features that designers are called to incorporate into their home include at least one no-step entrance, hallways that are 36 inches wide and have a minimum of one bathroom with a doorway at least 32 inches wide. In addition to these features, there are a number of additional aesthetical accommodations that make a home more visitable and improve it’s value. This concept removes barriers encountered by our associates, our children’s school age friends, our parents and aging grandparents, anyone who breaks a leg, uses wheeled luggage or moves into or out of a home-in essence, all of us.

The second and third purposes of an ABILITY House build are intertwined and directly related to building awareness of the skills and talents of people with disabilities, first within themselves and then within the community. During an ABILITY House build, people with all types of disabilities are recruited as volunteers. Through this experience their quality of life is enhanced as they are taught new skills and broaden their own perception of what their abilities are, while reaping the intangible rewards of volunteering and giving back to the community.

3 pictures of Volunteers with disabilities at work
Volunteers with disabilities at work

After four hours of labor-intensive construction work, the crew was ready for lunch. Throughout the unfinished interior of the home, small circles had formed as they made the best of eating lunch while seated on the floor with stacks of two by fours for a table. In a corner of the house that will ultimately become a child’s bedroom, a blind woman picked up her cell phone and placed a call. “You’ll never guess where I am!” she said eagerly to the listener on the other end. “Nope, guess again. Still wrong. try again.” Quite delighted at the knowledge she had stumped her friend, she said with a grin that permeated her voice. “I’m building a Habitat house! I know!” she exclaimed, getting more excited with each breath. “I’m hanging siding. I didn’t know how to when I got here, but they taught me how! I’m building a house!” The volunteers from BISM had done something many of them never thought they could do they helped build a house. At the close of the day, each would take away with them more than just a t-shirt a sense of contentment that comes from a hard day’s work and a job well done, new skills and a profound new realization that each one of them still possesses an array of skills and abilities that are sim ply waiting to be developed.

One particularly memorable image was of Tom, an associate of BISM who had volunteered to assist with roofing. As the hours went by, we took turns being surprised by Tom and the ease with which he maneuvered across the roof, as if he’d done it all this life. Never mind that Tom’s precision and accuracy with a hammer far surpassed my own sorry attempts at connecting hammer and nail; more often than not my efforts resulted in sore knuckles and broken fingernails. Within a short period of time, he’d developed a rhythm all his own as he worked to stay one step ahead of the team behind him. While another volunteer followed a chalk line on the tar paper, Tom would use his sense of touch to line the shingle up with the one before it; the result was perfect.

It was these images of a blind man on the roof or of the teams building the ramp or hanging siding that illustrated the third purpose of the ABILITY House program: to raise awareness within the community to the true skills and talents of people with disabilities. For those on site without disabilities, the day offered a profound learning experience. “Hearing there would be twelve volunteers on site who were blind, we didn’t know what we were going to do with them. We couldn’t envision how they were going to be able to help build this home,” shared one of the more experienced Red Hats as he confided about the anxiety and apprehension the site leaders felt at the start of the day. But it was this honesty, combined with open minds, willing hearts and positive attitudes that created an environment where everyone succeeded as a team.

Participation in an ABILITY House build also serves as an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their commitment both to their community and to those issues that impact people with disabilities. Over the years, UPS has established itself as a strong corporate member of the community through it’s support of the Points of Light Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and many other worthy organizations. When they received the call to sponsor the ABILITY House project, they offered only one stipulation: that in exchange for sponsorship, their employees be invited to volunteer. “The UPS Foundation often defers to the wisdom of UPS’ers in the community to determine whether projects or organizations qualify for UPS help, financial or otherwise. Our involvement with the ABILITY House project in Baltimore was a no-brainer,” notes Matthew Webb, UPS’ Metro DC community affairs manager. “The opportunity to contribute physically and financially made this a good fit for UPS participation. However, the X factor or that thing that made this a great fit was the uniqueness of the project. This project allowed UPS to con tribute to the delivery of the American Dream to this great homeowner. Not many projects have the potential to render so great an impact. This one did.”

Verizon also demonstrated their continued support of people with disabilities as a primary sponsor of the ABILITY House. “Verizon has a long-standing commitment to our customers with disabilities. This is evidenced by our involvement with the ABILITY House as well as the recent expansion of our Verizon Center for Customers with Disabilities to service customers in Mary land, Virginia, DC and West Virginia,” notes Lisa Harrison Burke, marketing director, Verizon.

“I have been a part of the Grumpy Old Men’s Wednesday Construction crew here in Anne Arundel County for more than five years, have participated in three previous blitz builds, two with Millard Fuller and one a Jimmy Carter Work Project, but I have never had a more rewarding experience than spending the day [on the ABILITY House build],” shared Bill Schummer, an Arundel Habitat board member and regular volunteers.

“Over and over again, I heard the construction staff and Red Hats, many of whom are long time Habitat volunteers, state that this was by far the ‘best day at a Habitat worksite’ they had ever experienced. Their eyes are now open to the many abilities that these volunteers with disabilities possess,” said Linda Grey, Arundel Habitat for Humanities executive director. “Looking back on this ABILITY House blitz week, I am reminded that God makes each of us with different strengths and weaknesses. Disability doesn’t mean a lack of capability. We have heard that many of the volunteers want to return and help finish the house. Arundel Habitat will welcome them back with gratitude, as we do all our unskilled and skilled volunteers who give of themselves to help families in need of a decent place to live.”

by Romney Snyder


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