Is Grandma’s House Accessible? Visitability for the Holidays

As we head into the holiday season, readers may be planning visits to see family and friends, travelling next door or across the country. For people with disabilities, visiting other people’s homes can be challenging. They may encounter physical barriers, like steps or narrow doors, or non-physical issues such as very noisy environments or heavy perfumes. Making homes that are “visitable” could increase opportunities for social connections between people with and without disabilities. Visitability is a universal design concept that encourages building homes that are accessible to residents and visitors, with step-free entrances, wider doors, and first-floor restrooms, at a minimum. Building new homes with visitability in mind could make it easier to build connections with neighbors, family, and friends of all abilities.

Visitability can also be applied on a temporary basis to make it possible for a person with a disability to spend time in someone else’s home. Making major or even minor renovations may not be feasible but, if you are opening your home to family and friends who may have disabilities, consider ways you can make your home more visitable, even on a temporary basis:

  • Identify and remove obstacles on walkways or driveways.
  • Set aside a quiet space for guests with sensory processing disorders or autism, where they can go when then experience stimulus overload.
  • Arrange furniture to accommodate mobility devices. Make sure you space furniture out enough to allow for your guests with mobility devices to maneuver through your home and use the furniture.
  • Turn on closed captions on the TV for guests who may be Deaf or hard of hearing so everyone can enjoy the entertainment.
  • Have blankets handy for those who have trouble regulating their temperature. You could prepare by having a weighted blanket or a heated blanket.
  • Create relief spots for service animals.
  • Avoid heavily scented candles, potpourri, or hand soaps which may cause irritation or respiratory distress.
  • Offer to give your guests a tour of the house. This allows them to visualize the layout of the house and where rooms are relative to each other, particularly guests who may have visual disabilities. While on the tour, avoid vague words like “over there.” Instead use directional terms as much as possible (e.g., “immediately to the left of the stairs…,” “if you turn right at the end of the hallway…,” etc.). Ahead of time, close all doors, especially doors that swing out into the hallway, to help prevent unwanted bumps and collisions. And “all doors” includes cupboards and drawers!
  • Make sure your guests know where their belongings are.Do not move their belongings without first asking them if it is okay. And, if they give the green light, tell them exactly where you move them and offer to help your guests get them when needed. This may seem like a minor tip, but it goes a long way in preventing confusion, frustration, and panicked feelings that can accompany frantic searches for misplaced items.
  • Be careful where you place things.Do not place items–large or small–on the floor, and especially not on the stairs. If you must put something down, put it where it will not be in the way of your guests’ path. If this is unavoidable, let them know right away. Tell them what the object is, where it is, and when you remove it.
  • Ask your guest! Don’t be afraid to ask your guest what will make them more comfortable in your home.

For even more suggestions, check out Making Homes Visitable: A Guide for Wheelchair Users and Hosts, created by NIDILRR Switzer Fellow Dorothy Nary and the staff at the University of Kansas Research and Training Center on Independent Living. This guide includes worksheets, checklists, and (perhaps most importantly) a section on how to have a productive conversation with potential guests or hosts about accessibility needs.

There are also numerous assistive technology (AT) solutions to make your home visitable for the holidays. The NIDILRR-funded AbleData database of AT includes many options:

  • Check with a local home supply store about renting a portable ramp for mobility device access.
  • Prepare the bedroom.Bed rails are bedside handrails that offer balancing support as you get into and out of the bed. If the bed is too high, a wheelchair user may need you to remove the mattress and/or box spring from the bedframe and place them on the floor.
  • Prepare your bathroom. There are simple tools that can make bathing easier and may help your guest feel more comfortable. Long handled brushes and sponges may assist those who have upper mobility difficulties or trouble bending. A wash mitt and towels with loops may also be helpful if they have grasping difficulties. Similarly, a terry cloth robe can be used in place of a towel for easier drying since it requires less movement. Having some bathing wipes handy might be helpful as well.
  • Be aware of your floors.Newly polished hardwood floors, slick linoleum tiles, and well-trodden carpets are just a few of the culprits that can increase the likelihood of accidental falls in your home, especially for those with a balance or mobility disability. One possible way to protect your guest against such slippery culprits may be to lay down non-slip mats or use products that coat your floor with an anti-slip treatment. Slipper socks may also provide additional grip and traction for surer footing.
  • Make sure they can participate in games! There are many solutions to make games accessible to many users. You might consider a Playing Card Holder, Do-It-Yourself Playing Card Holder, or Braille UNO Cards.
  • There are several Do-It-Yourself (DIY) products that may be free or low cost such as a DIY portable wheelchair ramp for ease of access, DIY straw holder to make drinking easier, and DIY adapted eating utensil grips or other DIY grip AT.
  • If you have a 3D printer, you can easily print a gripper adapter for wine or utensil holder

It might be helpful to familiarize yourself with different types of AT that your guests may use so you can understand their needs and make appropriate adjustments:

If you are building a new house or renovating your existing house, consider integrating visitability into the design. The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access has many resources to help you work with an architect or designer.

NARIC’s library includes a small collection of publications on visitability from the NIDILRR community and other sources. However, the collection includes many articles, books, and reports on universal design, accessibility, and modifications for the home and the workplace. Contact an information specialist today to explore the collection!

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