Accessibility (#A11y), Advocacy

Homes for All MN Launch Event on 2/2/22

I was excited to present at the Homes for All Minnesota Launch Event with Julia Burkstaller, Public Policy Director for Arc Minnesota. Here’s my presentation and hoping that legislation passes to increase more affordable and accessible homes that actually work for those of us with disabilities! Learn more at Increase Affordable, Accessible Housing Options, Arc Minnesota and Homes for All MN. I’ll let you know as soon as the recording for the event is available.

My Speech

Hi, my name is Justin Smith. I’m a young man in my 20s. I use a wheelchair to move around and a communication device to help me speak. Text to speech technology is reading my speech for you today. I have been on a quest to find a wheelchair accessible apartment and have run into barriers. 

Here is my experience over the past year in trying to find a wheelchair accessible apartment in Ramsey County. First off, there are very few older buildings that have anything wheelchair accessible. My best chance seemed to be brand new developments, yet that is not a guarantee of success. Last summer, I was able to tour a brand new 98-unit building that had one studio and one 1-bedroom they considered to be wheelchair accessible. 2%! Wow! Unfortunately, both units had traditional bathtubs instead of roll in showers needed by most wheelchair users.

Here’s one of the issues – the lack of accessible housing. Of the thousands of apartment listings in Ramsey County, that show up on apartment search sites, only about 30-40 show up as wheelchair accessible. After removing the 55+ apartments, because if I wanted 55+, I’d just keep living with my parents. We contacted over 20 other places that either didn’t respond back or what was shown for accessible apartments in online floor plans wouldn’t have worked for me. Yes, maybe they met some minimum Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards, but the bathrooms weren’t large enough for a power wheelchair to turn-around in. They didn’t have roll-in showers and some appeared to have difficult layouts to navigate using a power wheelchair.

Bathtub with grab bars and shower chair placed lengthwise in tub, woman holding phone with helmet and vest reflected in mirror

Second issue – there are not any consistent criteria for what qualifies as wheelchair accessible. I may be able to get into a building, ride in an elevator, and get into an apartment, but I wouldn’t actually be able to live there.

Here’s the thing: I do not want to live in a group home or segregated apartment building where everyone has a disability. I want to be part of an inclusive community or building with people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Unfortunately, developers don’t seem to be designing many spaces that let me be part of the community I choose. Until Federal, State, and Local entities meet a certain level of accessibility that truly meets the needs of people with disabilities and have a certain percentage of units that are accessible, we will continue to have “accessible spaces” that do not work for the people they are intended for. Design for accessibility from the start.

I eventually lucked out. One of the places I contacted last summer was just being built and didn’t even have a floor plan of the wheelchair accessible unit to look at. The apartment manager was extremely helpful in answering our questions and said that the apartment would have a roll-in shower. I put down my first deposit on a section 42 apartment, with the agreement that I could go check it out to make sure it would work for my accessibility needs. The apartment is not ideal – I need to roll through the common living area to get from my bedroom to the bathroom which is not attached to the bedroom. They also put carpeting in the bedroom which makes it harder for my aides to wheel me around either in my chair or using my transfer lift. But it’s workable and I’ll be moving into my first apartment in several weeks.

People with disabilities are supposed to be able to live in our communities. Where are we supposed to live? If we’re not building more accessible apartments that actually work for people with disabilities, that are integrated and included in our community, where do we live?

Thank you!

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