Following the Smalls: Making Mobility Possible at Home
Wheelchair accessible homes are hard to find, even in bigger cities. Most homes are simply not equipped with the kinds of things that a wheelchair user needs to go about their day-to-day activities. Doors are too narrow, entrances have steps, floors are carpeted. These issues, to name just a few, make daily life in a wheelchair challenging.
Doug Small and his wife Brigitte have been facing this problem. They want to be in Charlottesville and need to stay in a wheelchair accessible home, but the scarcity of such homes in the city is a hindrance to that.
“I have a rare vascular disorder. And [at] about 30 years old (now 68), I started having to manage it,” Doug said. “I've been in a wheelchair since 2017. My doctors are in Charlottesville at UVA. They're really, really good doctors. And so it felt important to me, as I get older … to be close to my doctors.”
Small needed better access to medical care due to his condition, which prompted thoughts of having a residence in Charlottesville. The prospects, however, were not very suitable for them.
“We looked and looked and looked, and the realtor, you know, as wonderful as she was,
would take us to these places, [where] we would encounter … a risky set of stairs, and bathrooms that were kind of tucked into a corner in a triangular way, and a door that was 22 inches wide. And [my] wheelchair is 26 [inches],” Small said. “No bathroom, no house.”
Finally, the Smalls had enough. Instead of trying to find a wheelchair accessible home, they took on a rather daunting yet vital task: building their own.
“[The realtors] said, Well, you know, you can always just renovate [a home]. And it's like, well, but if we're going to renovate it, why don't we just build the thing that we actually want?” Small said.
But the home is not only meant for his family’s personal use. The Smalls have bigger plans.
“We're not quite ready to move to Charlottesville, so we're designing this house to be available to us when we go,” Small said. “When we're not there, [we want to] rent to other people who are in wheelchairs. Build it so that the doors are wide enough, so that there are pocket doors that slide in and out, so that there aren't lips to get in and out of rooms, so that there's a shower that you can roll into.”
While there are other places, like hotels, that disabled persons can stay at, Small is hoping to create more options for people who may want a more private, larger space.
As of now, the Smalls project has not broken ground, but they are in the final planning stage. Doug and Brigitte are working with architects to create a cohesive plan for the home where accessibility and mobility are at the forefront.
“We’re fiddling around with some plans, reversing doors, taking out windows and putting in walls, because we want to make it more compatible with our goals and hopefully the goals of others who want to travel and who have disabilities, specifically wheelchair mobility issues,” Small said.
The home should be a safe space for those with disabilities, and even those without. The hope is that the house will offer a modern, tranquil area to relax.
“It's really important for people who are traveling with disabilities to be able to take a break from themselves and relax,” Small said. “I hope that the space that we're building is suitable for that. And I hope that people will take advantage of it.”
But this project is also more than that. Small wants for people viewing and interacting with the home to consider pertinent aspects in their own lives, such as the notion of aging in place.
“People — believe it or not — people get older. They don't think about what it's like for them in their old age. And Charlottesville, which is a river, mountain community, [has a] terrain that is not easy for people in wheelchairs, it's just simply not. But there are ways to fix it,” Small said.
Having a home that already comes equipped with accommodations which the owner or renter may need when they get older can be a necessary thing for a family’s function. The Small’s home brings up the point that ‘aging in place’ is important to think about when buying a home. Their home will be equipped with necessary tools and accommodations, they hope.
In the end, the Small’s home is representative of the necessity of inclusivity. Small believes that his family’s work can eventually better the community and increase accessibility in Charlottesville.
“Our humanity is all of us, and it's important that there's space for everyone,” Small said. “[Building the home is] tricky, and it's kind of expensive. We know that, but it's new. The more it becomes commonplace, the less expensive it will become. But we'd like for this to be sort of a demonstration project. I hope my neighbors think of it that way, too.”
We are excited to track the progress of the project and to keep readers updated on what will come next for the Smalls. As always, if you find barriers in our content or have suggestions please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know so that we can improve!