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“Accessible” doesn’t always mean “accessible”

Article by Mandy Hanna

The word “accessible” is frequently used to describe whether a place is suitable for a person with disability. For example, is the local park or pool “accessible”? Is there an “accessible” bathroom at the local shopping centre or café? Or, is the new home I want to move into “accessible”?

But what does “accessible” actually mean? Does it mean different things for different people and does one size really fit all?

As an Occupational Therapist, I've worked with lots of people with varying disabilities who have decided to move out of their family home, change where they live, or explore a new housing option. For some of my clients they have acquired new injuries or disabilities when living in their current home. For others their home met their needs as a child because their parents, carers or siblings were able to lift and carry them, but over time their increased manual handling supports have meant the home environment needed a new layout. Others are people whom I have supported to manage changing abilities and needs overtime.

The point is - everyone is different, with different functional abilities, at different life stages, with different support needs and with different accessibility requirements.

I want to share three stories to show how accessibility can be different from one person to the next.

The first story is about Martin* an adult client of mine who uses a power chair for mobility, who recently called to say he was moving house. When discussing access in the new two-level house, Martin assured me it would be “fine”. Martin had found a cheap stairlift on eBay that would help him get to the second storey. Little did he know that these products are custom-made for installation, which then pushes the price point to over $15,000! Plus, consent should be obtained from the landlord prior to installation. Not deterred, Martin moved into the new home (as the contract was already signed) and was determined to make this access work. However, after a week of bottom-shuffling up and down the internal stairs he made the decision to re-consider the suitability of this home and look for a new residence.

My second story is about when Ankit* (who also uses a wheelchair) approached me for support with finding a new home. We looked at properties together and although one of the homes we inspected wasn’t listed as “accessible”, the layout of the property was level and flat and there was only one step to navigate at the entry. I encouraged Ankit to consider the house as a good option because a few minor modifications could easily transform it into an “accessible” home. I recommended a range of simple home modifications: a simple low-cost wedge ramp at the front door; the removal of the shower screen; a couple of small wedges at internal doors and a different style of shower chair – nothing too complicated. With prior consent from the landlord to complete the modifications to improve accessibility, Ankit decided to move in, and has been happily living in the property for the last 12months.

My final story is about Tara* who has Multiple Sclerosis. Tara was considering modifications to her existing home to ensure it was more “accessible” and safe for her. Somebody had suggested Tara install a ramp at the front door to replace the two front stairs, at surface value a reasonable suggestion. Unfortunately they did not consider how Tara moved, or how her support requirements changed from day to day. This meant that they did not realise that because Tara is unable to lift her feet adequately when walking, a ramp is actually more difficult and hazardous for her to walk on, compared to stairs with a railing. For Tara, based on her specific mobility and support needs, “accessibility” actually meant keeping the stairs with a railing.

As you can see, accessibility means different things to different people...and unfortunately, one size does not fit all!

Don't get caught out - An Occupational Therapist (OT) can help!

If you’re looking for a new home, considering modifying your current home, or thinking about modifications to a new property so the home can be more accessible for you, talking to an OT can be a good idea.

An OT can:

• Assess your everyday function within your current environment.

• Recommend different adaptive aids, equipment or modified techniques to help you remain independent within your current environment e.g. shower chair, different cooking equipment, alternate transfer techniques.

• Recommend additional carer supports that may help you remain independent within your current environment.

• Provide recommendations on minor modifications to improve your independence and safety within your current environment e.g. installing hand rails, minor wedge ramps, different tap handles or door knobs.

• Assist you to obtain consent from your landlord (if you are renting) for minor modifications.

• Provide recommendations on major modifications to improve your independence and safety in your current environment e.g. full replacement of your bathroom, widened doorways, a modified kitchen, ramp access to the front or rear door, an internal lift. Depending on who your funding body is, this process can be quite lengthy, so start planning early.

• Support your re-location to another property if all of the above are not possible or suitable options. Assess potential new properties with you prior to moving in or signing contracts, gaining consent from landlords where required, to ensure the property can be adequately modified to suit your needs.

Mandy Hanna is an Occupational Therapist, and Manager of completeOT

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