Tag Archives: accessibility

Voting in Virginia

Two weeks ago, people swarmed Virginia’s polling places … to vote, and to survey accessibility.  dLCV recruited volunteers from all over the state to do a simple survey of polling places.  Was there accessible parking?  Was there an accessible path of travel?  Could the door be easily opened by someone in a wheelchair?  Was there any accessible voting equipment?

With all of our wonderful volunteers, we were able to collect more than 300 surveys of polling places.  Now comes the task of carefully assessing all the findings and remedying the problems we found.   Sadly, we found plenty of problems.

One of the more troubling violations we found throughout the state was the absence of real curbside voting.  Under state law, voters who are 65 or older or who have a physical disability are entitled to “curbside” voting:  An officer of election will bring a ballot or portable electronic voting machine to the car for the person with the disability to vote there.   State law makes clear that even with curbside voting, the voter gets to vote in private.

But throughout the state, we found place after place where there was no means for the person in the car to let the poll workers know they needed a curbside ballot.   Some polling locations told us that the voter needs to come inside and ask for it … really missing the point, don’t you think?  At one location, someone who was electioneering for a candidate had to cover up her campaign t-shirt and go inside to ask for the curbside ballots for people.   Multiple times.

At my polling place, there was a sign outside listing a phone number you could call to request curbside voting.  Although the sign was hard to read in the best of circumstances, the rainy weather we had that day completely wilted the thin paper sign. Unreadable.  It was a good try — but it fell seriously short of being accessible.

On the Department of Elections website, voters are “reminded” to bring an assistant to go in to request the ballot, but no such requirement exists in state law.  Requiring a voter with a disability to have an assistant would pose some serious legal questions under the Americans with Disabilities Act, in any event.

We know that all Virginia polling places can do better, because many are fully accessible.  As we analyse the survey results, and collect more election day stories, we will update you on what we have learned.  For now, though, we extend a huge thank you to all our wonderful volunteers working with us to improve access for people with disabilities.

how’s the weather out there?

Some years ago, after a heavy snow storm, the church that I was attending had the parking lot plowed. The contractor dutifully plowed the whole parking area … and pushed the snow pile into the “handicap” designated parking spaces and on top of the access ramp. When I asked what was going on, the minister told me, “frankly, wheelchair users don’t come out in this kind of weather.”

What? People who use wheelchairs don’t have to go to work after a snow storm? Don’t need groceries anymore? Don’t want to go to church? Says who?

Well, I guess all the people who pile snow on the access routes are the ones who “says who.” (This was in a part of the country where snow piles hang around for awhile, too, so there would be no welcome at this church for weeks.)

So, as we are digging out of this recent snow storm, look around you. Are the accessible parking spaces filled with snow? Are the ramps and curb cuts still covered? If so, say something to the owner or manager about it. Speak up on behalf of people who use mobility devices, because, you know, they may not be able to speak up for themselves. They don’t come out in this kind of weather.

Visitability: balancing the market, part two

Is it true that there is not much of a market for homes that are visitable by people who use mobility devices? It is hard to know for sure.

One organization is trying to create a market counterbalance, encouraging accessible home design. The group, Easy Living Homes, offers a certification program for homes with easy access, easy passage and easy use. Although the certification program is voluntary, the program claims 14 participating builders throughout Virginia.

The Easy Living Homes project seeks to encourage that homes are built with easy access for people who use mobility devices and, frankly, for everyone. Easy Living Homes builds on a concept known as “universal design” or “inclusive design,” which supports environments that are accessible to older people, to people who use wheelchairs and walkers, and to all people. You can learn more about the project at http://www.elhomes.org

Universal design is more involved, more extensive, than “visitablity.” For a home to qualify for the easy living certification, the main living quarters — kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and entertainment area — must all be on an accessible floor. That is more than is required for a home to be considered “visitable.” To be visitable, your home must simply have a zero step entrance, 32 inch doorways, and one bathroom that someone using a wheelchair can get into.

While the Easy Living Homes project offers a certification for accessible homes, what incentive is there for much more basic but equally important “visitablity” features?

Visitablity: balancing the market

There is a clear perception, and perhaps even a reality, that homes that are accessible to people who use mobility devices have a lower market value than those without accessible features. How can we combat a market reality — or perception — like that?

One of the ways is a little understood provision in Virginia Tax code called the Livable Home Tax Credit. This is a financial incentive for homeowners to retrofit their home to become more accessible. Homeowners may claim up to 50% of the cost of retrofitting as a credit against their state taxes, up to $ 5000. Contractors, as well, can receive a tax credit for the costs of new construction or renovations to improve access.

In short, if it costs four thousand dollars to add a ramp to your home, two thousand dollars of that may be claimed as a credit against your state taxes. With this tax credit, accessibility features become much more affordable. Making your home more “visitable” may be within reach.

For more information about the Livable Home Tax Credit, see http://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/index.php/housing-programs-and-assistance/tax-credit-programs/livable-homes-tax-credit.html

Are there any other ways we can combat the market forces weighing against more accessible homes?

Visitablity and the Marketplace, part two

Is it true that accessible homes are less “valuable” or less marketable on the open real estate market?

The statistics may not be on our side. According to reputable studies, only 2.6% of the population uses mobility devices, and the vast majority of those devices are canes. (Someone who uses a cane may appreciate accessibility features, but those features are much less critical to their ability to visit a friends’ home.) The study estimates that approximately as little as one half of one percent of the population under age 65 uses wheelchairs or scooters for mobility. When you include those over 65, the percentage rises slightly to .6 percent.

In Virginia terms, that means the total number of people who use wheelchairs or scooters for mobility could be fewer than 50,000. That number does not include people who are using mobility devices on a short term basis, perhaps after an injury or surgery. Still, even if we include temporary use in our totals, it is a relatively small number of people, across the Commonwealth, who need an accessible home to live in.

Those numbers are, of course, misleading. They do not account for the spouses, parents, children and housemates of people who use wheelchairs and need an accessible home to be able to live together.

And even more critically, they do not include the numbers of friends, work colleagues and social acquaintances who need an accessible home for visitors.

How can we calculate the number of people in Virginia who need an accessible home so that their friends and family can visit? And how can we, who need an accessible home so our friends and family can visit, become a factor to be considered in that open real estate market?

(Statistics from the US Census Bureau http://www.census.gov and from the University of California at San Francisco, Disability Statistics Center, http://www.dsc.uscsf.edu )

Visitability and the marketplace

In my neighborhood, most of the homes were built in the 1920s. Many have the charming feature of a wide front porch with broad steps leading upward. Charming, yes, but inaccessible.

There was one home in the neighborhood, however, that was fully accessible to someone who used a wheelchair. There was a beautifully landscaped, sloping area serving as the ramp to the entrance. The two story house had a small elevator inside, wide doorways and an expansive bathroom on the second floor.

But several years ago, this wonderful house was sold, and the new owner promptly demolished the sloping entrance, replace it with steps, removed the elevator and converted the shaft into closet space. The house was left with wide doorways and an oddly large bathroom on the second floor.

The conversion was done by a real estate agent, who bought the house in order to “flip” it. When I asked him why he would do something like that that, he explained that the changes made the house more valuable, more marketable.

How can we hope to achieve a society where homes are more visitable by people who use mobility devices, if the market itself is working against us? Any thoughts?

Come on in!

What do you know about “visitability?” The word looks like a typo, but it isn’t! Visitability is a nationwide movement to make homes accessible to people who use mobility devices. Homes should be accessible not merely as places to live but as places where people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices can visit. With very few exceptions, if someone who uses a wheelchair wants to hang out with friends, he or she can only do so in their own (hopefully) accessible residence. In most Virginia homes, it is virtually impossible for someone who uses a wheelchair to visit a neighbor.
For a home to be “visitable,” it must have three basic characteristics: a zero step entrance, doorway widths of 32 inches or more, and a bathroom on the main floor that you can use with a wheelchair. Can your home pass?