An interview with Eleanor Smith of Concrete Change

eleanorSmith300w“One day in 1986 I was driving around in Atlanta, Georgia, my home city, and I passed though a large development of new homes,” says Eleanor Smith, founder of Concrete Change and the U.S. visitability movement. “As always, these homes had steps at every entrance.” But on that day, for some reason, Smith found herself looking at the houses differently. “I thought, ‘These homes could have all had access!’

“I had driven past inaccessible houses thousands of time since my disability came about at age three, and I had paid the price of this lack of access when I could not go to friends’ parties, when I suffered from being unable to use the bathroom when visiting other people’s homes.” Smith had had great difficulty finding an apartment or home she could rent as well.

Smith thought about it over the next few months, she says, and came to realize that “widespread change in housing construction depended on identifying and publicizing the very few construction barriers that create the most harm: lack of a zero-step entrance, narrow interior doors, and lack of access to a bathroom.”

Smith credits her involvement in ADAPT for her epiphany. “Without participating in ADAPT –a lift on every new bus — I would have never had the epiphany of ‘a zero-step entrance on every new house.'”

Like the organizer she is, Smith had found a way to name the problem in simple terms that others could understand. “I joined with several other local people with disabilities and we named our organization ‘Concrete Change.'”

At the time they weren’t using the term “visitability” but simply referring to it as “basic access.” She learned of the word from a Japanese architect, a wheelchair user, who told her that in Europe activist had a term for the concept she was espousing: “visitability.”

“I was immediately excited about this term,” she says. “It automatically makes people think ‘every house,’ not ‘special houses.

“Back then, it was generally taken as an unexamined given that only people who are currently disabled need access features in their homes,” she explains. “Any term that shifted that assumption was valuable.”

“It defies logic to build new homes that block people out when it’s so easy and cheap to build new homes that let people in,” says Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D.-Ill.), chief sponsor of the bill in Congress.

Why the bill? “It is currently legal for the U. S government to fund new, totally inaccessible townhouses and single-family homes,” Smith explains. “HUD, FEMA, the VA, and other federal agencies do that every day.” She calls the move toward federal legislation a “leap forward, a significant leap — because it will get far more people talking and thinking about the idea.”

Can visitability become a political, activist movement? It already is. Although advocates have been getting visitability laws passed since the 1990s, in the past year, hundreds of stories about the concept have appeared in the media. Visitability legislation has moved onto the agendas of an increasing number of communities.

Colleagues at a universal design conference a few years ago were told to “watch Eleanor.” It seems to have been good advice. Smith, though, ever the organizer, credits others with the growth of the concept — especially the Disability Rights Action Coalition on Housing, or DRACH, a national group that organizes disability advocates nationwide to push not only the national legislation but local efforts as well.

But the strength of the movement, she believes, has been the idea itself. “It is so self-evident that the consequences of the lack of access for people with mobility impairments are so severe — it’s not a matter of inconvenience; it’s a matter of humiliation, bladder infection. When you see how dire the consequences are, and you see how easy it is to create new houses that don’t have these major barriers, then it becomes really ridiculous and outrageous that the barriers continue to be built into new homes.”

The key, she says, is that unlike the shift of money from nursing home to in-home services, visitability does not take money from any industry. “Visitability simply does not cost a lot of money.” In houses built on concrete slabs, achieving visitability can cost $100 or less per house, says Smith. Houses with crawl spaces can achieve visitability for $500 per house.

But no new idea goes unchallenged. Opponents insist the cost can often be much higher. They also argue the right of private property owners to be free of “government interference.” (They forget that fire, plumbing and electric codes that homebuilders routinely follow are also “government interference.”)

Smith says the consequences of not building visitable homes “will really will come home to rest” on society in the near future.

“When I see opponents spouting patently incorrect cost data, using the very worst-case scenarios, I think to myself, ‘you know, you guys are never going to be rich enough to not live with the consequences of what you’re trying to effect here. Only the mega-wealthy or Christopher Reeve can afford to travel constantly with three people to carry them up steps.’

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me,’ or ‘Oh, I have the money to redo my own house.’ Maybe. But not their son’s house, not the house of the person they’ve played poker with for the last three decades. Then what?”

An opponent of a visitability bill in Georgia told Smith “he really couldn’t support it. Then, over the summer, his dad had a stroke. The next year he said, ‘I see things quite differently now.'” He’d had trouble when his dad came home in getting him up the steps and through the doors. “All it took in his case,” said Smith, “was coming home.”

From the Jan./Feb. 2003 issue of The Ragged Edge magazine

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