Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Access Denied 3, the Home Version

I have a confession to make. My house is not all that accessible, either. I live in a 1970's Southern Colonial tract house with a narrow hallway, light switches set at my (standing) shoulder level, a combination of plush carpet and faux brick tiles for flooring, and furniture placement that was not chosen with wheelchair access in mind. The are no sinks I can roll up to or showers I can roll into, although there is a grab bar in the tub. There would be a shower I could roll into if I had had my way about it back when we remodeled the bathroom, in place of the tub that we do have. I wanted a big tile shower with a shower seat, since we never take baths anyway, but John thought the bathtub would be better for resale value, and since he purported not to understand why I thought the 1970's Harvest Gold bathroom needed a redo anyway, I deferred to him. 

The one good thing about our house for access purposes is that it is built on a slab and all one story, so there are no stairs.

So I have been making do with a combination of wheelchair use, brief bouts of walking, briefer bouts of standing, and my husband doing a lot for me. While it is hard rolling the chair on the carpet and the tile, it is not impossible, especially after those few months of biceps curls and floor and overhead presses. I can actually make myself tea and toast and get my yogurt from the refrigerator for breakfast. I was all set to fry myself an egg yesterday, with the small cast iron pan that lives in the middle drawer, when my husband came in and did it himself, with more than a few sighs and grimaces along the way. I am able to turn the light switches on and off with my walking stick, which I carry around with me in my chair for those times when I have to get out of it and walk to where I am going. I thought about smacking martyred hubby with said walking stick, but he meant well. I think.

Grooming is accomplished with what I call my "Hokey Pokey Bath": I straddle the side of the tub with my right foot in and my left foot out, although I'm not shaking anything all about.

The biggest problem I am having with access is not having my hands free while I wheel the chair anywhere. When I make breakfast, I get it to the table by moving it from the farthest point on the right to the farthest point on my left, moving the wheelchair until the object is again on my right, and keep repeating until I can finally reach the table. It takes a lot of time, but I have time. If I make a cup of tea, I drink it in the kitchen, or at least in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. To do laundry, I have to wheel the clothing to the laundry room in small bunches. Hubby said what I need is a cup holder on the chair. I need to look into that.

This all reminds me of the days after my foot surgery, when I had to get around on crutches until my doctor offered me the option of orders for a wheelchair. I needed to make a phone call while waiting for the wheelchair to be delivered, and wanted to take the phone into the living room. I decided to throw the phone on the sofa, then hobble over to it on my crutches. Unfortunately, I missed the sofa. Plan B was to nudge the phone over to the sofa with one of my crutches. As soon as Truffle saw me nudge the phone in one direction, he decided it was a great game and batted it in the other direction. The phone hockey game only ended when the referee smacked him with her crutch. I finally got the phone to the sofa, me to the sofa, and the wheelchair delivered.

I told my sister about the struggle with the cat and the phone. She told me some day I'd see the humor in it. I saw the humor in it while it was happening, I just needed the phone.

Maybe someday I'll see the humor in my broken foot struggles, too.

Truffle answering the phone for me when I had my foot surgery


  1. Just an FYI for the bathroom. It is fairly inexpensive to get a bench or chair that will fit in the bathtub, and to attach a handheld showerhead to the shower. Safer and less messy than sitting on the edge of the tub.

    You do want the handheld shower head, as if the water gets suddenly hot, you can't move out from under it quickly as you would do when standing, but you can quickly turn the showerhead so you're not spraying your body. Severe scalds being a particular danger for people who shower sitting down.


  2. As far as I know, based on my interior design training, homes are even less likely to be accessible than public places are. There's some pretty strong reasons for why, which mostly boil down to (1) it takes a lot of space, (2) it involves expensive permanent changes, or (3) the designer had to think about it before building, to avoid #2.

    Don't take the rest of this comment to say that we can't or shouldn't make houses accessible. We can and should do it. My point is that building in accessibility has a price; it costs design, space, and sometimes money. Unless they are specifically selling accessibility as a feature, your random real estate developer probably will not put in the investment. The converse is that one who wised up and got a good designer, picked the right area with the right demographics could probably make a pretty penny selling attractive, completely accessible houses or condos to those who need them or will soon.

    An accessible hallway has to be wider. An accessible bathroom or bedroom has to be bigger to have the same number of fixtures or furniture pieces, often significantly bigger -- instead of a 3' wide path being acceptable, or even a 2', suddenly we've got to have 4', often a 5' turning circle. Space costs money and circulation space is useless when you aren't circulating. Designers try to cut down on it to make designs more useful and affordable.

    Accessible lightswitches and other controls have to be built in properly the first time or changed later at high expense. Same for bathroom fixtures -- is there blocking in the walls for grab bars? is the room's layout and finishes suitable for a roll-in shower? Can there still be a tub somewhere? If we make the sink accessible, will we lose the only storage available in the room, or have space to add more?

    Kitchens are just as bad. There has to be knee space under the sink and cooktop, so now we've lost 6 linear feet of lower cabinet and upgraded to a cooktop and wall oven. Overhead cabinets are hard to use -- we need storage towers or more lower cabinets or special shelf-lowering devices in the upper cabinets. We also need to wheel around -- not walk around -- people, open cabinet or appliance doors, and other obstacles. We need a lot more space, and more clear floor space, to have the same amount of useful working area as a non-accessible kitchen.

    All this stuff would be why there is a thriving market in accessibility add-ons!

  3. Here from slacktiverse and I have a few suggestions. I am not a wheelchair user myself, and I don't know what your specific needs are, but I hope at least a few of them will be useful to you.

    1) You could get a large, foldable cloth bag with handles that can be tied to the handles in your wheelchair, for transporting things like laundry. They also make backpacks for wheelchairs, which are smaller, I think, and you could keep a portable phone, paper, pen, whatever you like to have handy in them. The cupholder you mentioned wanting in your post is a good idea too.

    2) They make shower cap things that you can put on your head, massage your head, and then when you take it off, your hair is wet and clean. I don't know if this is more expensive than regular shampoo, and if so, by how much, but it seems it would be really hard to wash your hair while straddling the bathtub.

    3) I don't know how much they cost, but they have those plastic mats with teeth on the bottom that you generally see in offices where the chair has little wheels to make it easier to roll around. If it's not too expensive, it might be worth getting a few to cover the most troublesome stretches. I don't know what it would be like rolling onto and off of them in a wheelchair, but they're usually only a few milimetres thick, and they're made of durable plastic. It does take a little while for their teeth to sink into the carpet, but once they do, they won't move.

    4) When I had a badly sprained ankle, I had no crutches, because the hospital the only doctor who had the key to the closet where they were kept was on mandatory leave after working a 24 hour shift so they sent me home in a taxi. They were out of bandages and pain killers too, but they wrote me a perscription which I got a friend to fill for me a few excruciating days later. I know is not the same at all as foot surgery. The only way I could get around was by bending my knee and resting it on a stool. Then I took a step with my left leg. Then I picked up the stool that had my leg on it with my arms and moved the stool a short distance forward. I couldn't leave the house for over a month (at which time a neighbour found out and lent me some spare crutches he happened to have) and my back hurt from bending over so much. The way I took baths was I put my stool right next to the bath, sat on it, put my good leg in, braced myself with both hands on the tub, hoisted myself in, washed, then put both my legs in the air, turned sideways in the bathtub, put my legs on the stool, and then sort of scrambled up with my arms till I was seated. Then I caught my breath, stood on my good leg, and put it back on my stool and away I went. If you miss sitting in a bathtub, and the kind of gymnasics required at the end to get out of the tub seem like something you could do safely, then you might try it. If you have any doubts as to whether you can do this safely, then you shouldn't do it.

    5) You didn't mention your toilet, but since most toilets have a long cord that hangs to about shoulder height (adult standing) which you pull to flush, I recommend tying some string to the end of it so that you can reach it easier. I did that when I had a six year old visiting me and he needed my help to flush, and I thought he was old enough to appreciate a bit of privacy in the matter.

  4. (i realise my 4th paragraph was a bit confusing. But it was my right leg that injured and resting on the stool and my left leg that was walking. but after a while my left hip was hurting too from this unbalanced way of getting around.)

  5. Thank you both for the suggestions. I realize that I didn't mention it in this post, only in a previous post, but I have a soft cast on my left foot under the walking boot, and I need to protect it from getting wet. That's why I straddle the side of the tub to take a sponge bath. I do have a handheld shower attachment in my tub, but I find it's easier to wash my hair in the kitchen sink. (I can stand for brief periods, and my hair is short so I can wash it quick, then sit back down in the chair to dry it.)

    pthalos, I can imagine how your hip felt. After my foot surgery (which was in 207, this go round I broke a bone in the opposite foot) when I first got out of the cast, I limped badly because my foot was still sore, and the opposite hip developed a nasty case of bursitis. It still troubles me off and on. It sounds like you did quite a bit of struggling around. It makes me glad for my wheelchair, awkward as it is at times.