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Accessibility Isn’t Accessible in Charleston

What is accessibility?

What does it mean to you?

What does it mean to those around you? How people will live there lives? How does accessibility linger in every corner of our lives?

It doesn’t.

I remember very vividly one of my first lectures in architecture. We sat and a panel of architects and designers were speaking to us regarding sustainability. One of the lead designers looked at us and said we’d be spending most of our time as students and professionals tediously working to remain within codes and that concepts like sustainability and accessible design hindered our creative processes.

It was what we would end up hating about our chosen field.

My first semester as an Interior Design student, we were learning about residential design. One of the largest underlying themes within that semester was also learning about the codes and requirements of ADA design.

American Disability Association. Formed in 1940.

American Disability Act. 1990.

1990 was a tremendous turning point, as this is when these rules were laid out. They were assembled and defined as a way to create equal housing and availability and essentially options for those living with disabilities.

Ask any designer or architect and they’ll tell you that these rules and regulations serve as their biggest barrier.

Since it’s their biggest barrier, they don’t build accessible housing. If they do, you can bet your ass its going to cost a pretty penny.

One of my favorite activities involves looking at all the new listings. I spend hours and hours looking through galleries of new apartments and fancy homes that are up for sale all around the Charleston area.

Today, I put a new filter on.

Apartments.com has a “wheelchair accessible” option, Forrent has a “disability access” option.

Of the over 2000 listings, 600 fell into that criteria.

But then, as I started looking through the listings, they don’t actually show what they mean by wheelchair accessible…

At the low end of the price range (under $1000 for a one bedroom/studio), not a single gallery showed anything close to an ADA compliant kitchen or bathroom.

At the higher end of the spectrum ($2000 – $4000 for a one bedroom/studio), I began to see more spacious bathrooms that could fit the regulations.

So what’s the criteria to be able to list your apartment complex as “wheelchair accessible”? Do you have to have one unit out of your 65 available? Is it that your handyman is willing to install grab bars in your bathroom?

These same complexes claiming to have said accessibility seem to have a lot of fees as well. $150 for parking downtown Charleston? Okay, that one isn’t as bad since parking is a big deal in any city. Oh, but there’s that $450 fee for a dog, and there’s all these breed restrictions. How does this apply to the service animals needed by those in the disabled community? I even saw one listing with a restriction on fish breeds.

No listing had an indicator of available apartments that were marked as “accessible” just that “rooms” were what were accessible. Confusing right?

Should I just call all 600 leasing offices to get clarification?

I glanced at Handicap Accessible homes on Zillow… There’s 5 of them. None under $400,000.

Interesting right?

So, it brings me back to what is accessibility?

On the basis of building codes and regulations, we’re only going to touch on wheelchairs. Because that’s all the codes touch on.

In a wheelchair I need a few things for my home:

  • A proper turning radius, or T-shaped turn space in bathrooms and kitchens. 
  • A proper approach to doorways that allow me to roll up next to the door and open the door without the wheelchair getting in the way. 
  • I need to be able to roll under the sink to use it. 
  • I can’t be bumping into furniture constantly, so I need extra space to move around.
  • Gosh I wish I could reach the light switch without having to stretch
  • I can’t seem to reach the hanging rack in my closet either
  • I need grab bars next to my toilet and in my shower
  • A shower I can roll into would also be really great
And good news is, there’s regulations for all of that. There’s even specific codes designed for kitchens to change the toe kicks and the types of appliances…
And then there’s this grey area that’s more “suggestions”
A front loading washer and dryer with controls on the front face of the machine… 
Microwaves in a drawer rather than above the stove…
Handles on doors and faucets that make it easier to use if someone struggles with their grip…
Technically you need a turning radius OR space for a T-turn. 
I could go on and on and on with this list. 
The existing requirements are basic and they meet the hypothetical needs of a person confined to a wheelchair, but they don’t meet the lived needs of anyone. 
Which brings me back to the apartments for sale in the Charleston area. 
They don’t clearly meet any of the hypothetical needs, but surely there are disabled people living among us?
I don’t have a single friend or family member that lives in a complex or a home that has an elevator. 
I don’t have to be confined to a wheelchair to have difficulty with stairs. 
But, I shouldn’t have to choose between my quiet top floor apartment where I don’t have to worry about constant noise from upstairs tenants, and the first floor option that still has quite the little bumper to go over to even enter the apartment?
Hell, most of these apartments have one or two steps going up to the “ground” floor anyway. 
As a designer, there is so much I can do to make a home and the furnishing accessible for all users. They sell couches that are easier for transferring from wheelchair, and they don’t look much different than the nice furniture sold at high end stores… you just have to know what you’re looking for.
You have to recognize that the comfy couch you sink into, isn’t going to provide support or easy on and off for someone with a mobility issue. 
Think of your elderly grandparents and how they’re stuck sitting in the stiff wooden dining chair at family events… Think of how nice it would be if you took the time to have a real chair for them already included in your space… 
But as a designer, there’s some things I can’t work past. 
When the kitchen is too narrow for two people to work in it, chances are pretty good that a wheelchair user won’t be able to navigate the kitchen. 
These new luxury apartments are phasing out the “dining room” and including a bar in the kitchen… but they’re high top bars. Not something you can easily roll up to as a functional eating space. Not something that is easy if climbing onto a hightop stool is painful. 
All of these barriers prevent a vast majority of disabled individuals from even considering moving out and being on their own. 
I can promise you that for the most part, those who need more accessible accommodations aren’t useless and they certainly can do most things on their own. 
But if you can’t even use your own kitchen because the design of it chose to exclude you from it, that puts in you a hard place. 
There’s thousands of physical barriers all present in the vast majority of homes and complexes, but the largest one isn’t physical. 
Cost. 
Do I want to live at home with my parents? Absolutely not.
But, you see even a one bedroom apartment around here costs between $700 and $900 for something that may not even be in relatively safe neighborhood. 
And, I can already feel the “if you have a roommate your costs won’t be as high” argument. Which is fair for the able bodied folks. And, I sincerely invite you to come live with me for a week and see how incredibly insane all the accommodations I need are, and you’ll see why “having a roommate” isn’t feasible. If you think I’m crazy for saying that, I’ll happily connect you with my sister and my parents and my roommates from freshman year… 
These costs are unreasonable for someone who’s only source of income is social security disability payments. My personal allotment each month barely covers half… and gosh darn it I’d be pretty hungry and pretty miserable since I wouldn’t be able to cover costs of my medicines either… 
Cost is the biggest barrier. 
I spend most of my time hoping for some sort of breakthrough in my treatment, because until that happens and until I can at least work part time, the idea of even covering basic costs of living as a disabled person in this area isn’t feasible on my own. 
But one day, I’ll feel better. 
One day, you’ll probably see some new bill be drafted in the government that revises the ADA design requirements. And I hope my name is at the top of that bill. Most importantly, I hope you don’t roll your eyes and act as if it doesn’t matter, because you see that attitude is what has deemed Charleston and the surrounding area – and many cities like it – another large barrier holding back individuals with disabilities. 
And when you hear someone complain, whether it’s in your classes or your place of work, say something. Don’t just stand by, don’t just let people continue to push us under the rug. 
You can open the heavy door at my doctors office, I can’t. And that’s something you all need to be more aware of. 
A. 

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