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Francine McClendon: 'Visit-ability' movement's motto: Access for all

GRAND FORKS—Visit-ability, also called inclusive home design, universal design or "age in place" design, means providing basic accessibility in new home construction for persons with disabilities as well as visiting neighbors, family and friends.

Basic accessibility means only the few "essential" features required to allow access to all. These essential features are the following:

▇ At least one accessible, "zero step" entrance at the back, front or side or through a garage.

▇ All main floor interior doors and hallways provide at least 32 inches of clear passage space.

▇ A main floor bathroom with basic maneuvering space for a wheelchair.

Since its inception in 1989 by Eleanor Smith, the Visit-ability movement has brought about tens of thousands of aesthetically pleasing, visitable homes across the nation. Officials from many of these visitable communities, such as Pima County, Ariz., and Bolingbrook, Ill., have testified to the movement's continued success in improving the design of new single-family homes.

Highlighted in their testimony is the fact that incorporating these accessible features adds no extra construction costs while increasing the marketability of the homes. Supporters also note how easy the construction is when builders use proper planning.

While incorporating basic access features in new homes can be done at zero cost, continuing to build with barriers turns out to be extremely costly, both monetarily and to our public health.

Retrofitting costs can be huge and largely prohibitive. Increased medical costs due to serious injuries resulting from barriers are common as well. Falls from steps or those poorly constructed, Evel Knievel-type ramps even can be deadly.

But perhaps the highest dollar cost is in the increased institutionalization that such barriers bring about, when people cannot return to their own homes after injuries or illnesses. And on top of the financial burden, this also is a time of turmoil for families.

It's an unfortunate reality that access barriers do not permit many of us to stay in our own homes as we age. Incorporating basic access features into the plans of new homes would let all of us stay longer in our homes as we age.

This would meet the urgent needs of North Dakota's aging Baby Boomer population.

Further, it's impossible to put a price tag on the isolation, loneliness and depression that people can suffer because of home-access barriers. Imagine how children with mobility impairments must feel when they cannot participate in birthday parties, sleepovers or other celebrations at their friends' homes.

As an adult, I almost missed attending my father's funeral last summer because my relatives' older homes lacked access. Thanks to a friend's help, I was able to stay at a hotel; so, while I was unable to stay with loved ones at their homes, I was able to say goodbye to my father.

These exclusions due to home-access barriers can be completely avoided by incorporating the essential access features in new homes. Advocates nationwide are pressing for the Inclusive Home Design Act, which would require any single-family home built using federal dollars to be visitable.

Also, many people are stepping forward on their own to incorporate visit-ability, because the project is such a timely idea and one that just makes sense.

Herald readers, let's all learn more about visit-ability, especially how easy it is to do and how attractive, important and needed it is.

Remember, incorporating visit-ability into new home construction adds no additional cost but benefits everyone.

None of us is immune from aging. I challenge all of us in North Dakota and Minnesota, from senior citizens to college athletes, to remove home-access barriers as we build new homes.