Monday, November 3, 2008

What is the difference between “Barrier Free” apartments versus an “ADA” apartment?

When you use a wheelchair it can be hard to find accessible apartments and housing. Over the last 10 years, I have always been someone that rented an apartment and at one time I even had a small house. The internet is very helpful, but when I have gone online to find apartments, I always googled words like “wheelchair accessible apartments” or “ADA apartments”. A lot of information would pop up, but it was still always a challenge finding an apartment that fits my needs as a wheelchair user. I am lucky because as a paraplegic I don’t require a roll in shower or a lot of extra adaptations, but one day I may need things like this. Some simple things that I need in an apartment for it to be accessible would be things such as an accessible bathroom, easy access to reach a washer and dryer, a place to park my car, and access to the front door.

Once I rented a small house with a friend, which was owned by an older couple. When I first called to ask about the house, I did not share with them that I was in a wheelchair, I just asked if the house was on one level and how many steps there were up to the front door. After I saw the interior of the house, I realized it was very small and a ramp would need to be built, but everything else I could deal with. Although, the landlord was really apprehensive about renting to someone in a wheelchair, he had his lawyer draw up some papers, and asked me to sign them. Basically, the legal documents said that I would not sue him if I was to ever fall out of my wheelchair and hurt myself on the property. The main reason he wanted me to sign the legal document is because he said the house is not meant for someone in a wheelchair to live in. The papers also said that if I built a ramp it had to be removed when we moved out. I called the American with Disabilities Act hotline and asked them if this was legal and they said no. Even though I felt discriminated against, and didn’t want to sign the papers, I needed a place to live. I felt that it was wrong of them to do this because when you really think about it; there is no difference between me falling out of my wheelchair and hurting myself versus someone tripping and hurting themselves.

Just a couple of years ago I was looking for an apartment and felt like I was getting nowhere. One day I stopped by an apartment complex and wanted to look at an apartment and the office manager felt so bad because the “model” apartment that they show people was up a flight of stairs. She was really helpful though because she said that she thought that their sister property probably had an opening for a “barrier free” apartment. I had no idea what she was talking about? What the heck did “barrier free” mean? What I discovered about this terminology is that it seems to be a way to describe apartments that have access for wheelchairs, but may not be up code with the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, this is what I want to know from other people: Am I wrong about this, or is the term “barrier free” a way for an apartment complex to get around the codes of the American with Disabilities Act? I have seen apartments that are considered ADA approved and most of them seem to be up to code. A good example of some things that ADA apartments have that mine doesn’t is the kitchen has accessible/roll under sinks, low counters, handles and grab bars in the bathroom, maybe a roll in shower, wide hallways, push button doors, among other things.

Well, I ended up looking at the sister property and was shown an opening for a brand new “barrier free” apartment that was just newly renovated. The apartment I live in now works for me, but I am not sure if it would work for someone in a power wheelchair. So, what is it about the apartment that I currently live in that makes it “barrier free”? Well, it has accessible parking, there is easy access to the front door, all of the hallways are wide, and there is one very large bathroom instead of two. I assume all the other apartments that are above and below me with stairs, have two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

So, my advice to others is to do your research when you go apartment hunting. If you can be somewhat discreet when inquiring about accessible apartments because I have noticed that as soon as I started talking about the ADA , some people just shut me down. I believe that they know their apartment complex is not up to the code of the ADA, and they worry about renting to someone in a wheelchair. It seems like a lot more people respond positively when you talk about “barrier free” apartments. If you should happen to rent an apartment that is barrier free, you can make requests to make the apartment more accessible to your needs. When I moved in, I asked them to put in a lower peep hole in the front door for my personal safety so I can look and see who is at the door. They even offered to put in grab bars for me, but I said I didn’t need them. There are other things I have suggested as well, but it is a slow process. I just hope that suggestions I make to them will make the apartment complex more accessible for other people in disabilities, and they can learn from having a tenant in a wheelchair.

Tammy Wilber
~Living independent and barrier free~

1 comment:

Brittany said...

I completely agree. I must be really hard to find an apartment that can fit to your needs if you are in a wheelchair. I have heard that now buildings should have a ramp by law.
Internet should be helpful, since you can find an apartment with the exact characteristics you ask for. Last year I was looking for a buenos aires apartment in Argentina (since I was travelling with my son who is also in a wheelchair) and we were able to find a place with the infrastructure we needed.
I though it was a miracle at that time, but it turns out that it is pretty common.
Anyways, I really enjoyed my trip!