When we think of the lives of people with disabilities, many of us assume that accessibility is the default. We imagine people in wheelchairs using a ramp to get into their home, having an elevator in the building, and being able to easily open the door with an automated button.
Disabled people often have no other choice besides living in a situation that isn’t fully accessible to them.
People with disabilities are
And while some homes legally meet the minimum American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, many aren’t actually meaningfully accessible to real people’s needs. This is especially true for people whose access needs aren’t widely understood, like those who need fragrance-free housing.
Living without full access might look like choosing between two apartments — one where you can’t comfortably use the bathroom and one where you’d never be able to cook on your own. It could look like living in an isolated environment because there isn’t reliable public transportation nearby. It could look like living on the fifth floor of a building with an elevator but without a safe exit plan in case of an emergency (or an elevator breakdown).
I moved from my last apartment into my current one because the last one didn’t meet all of my access needs. It wasn’t close to public transportation, which both my partner and I need to use regularly, and the two flights of stairs were exhausting for me on days when I had a lot of pain and fatigue.
Our current apartment also isn’t fully accessible. It has a small set of stairs to get inside, and there are raised parts of the floor under all of the doorways, which makes it challenging to move from room to room if you’re using a wheelchair.
When I’m making plans with other friends who have mobility issues, we either have to make do with a less than ideal situation (like carrying someone upstairs in their wheelchair) or meet somewhere else that’s accessible.
Other disabled friends have had to make similar choices, like living in a home with multiple winding staircases because it was the only fragrance-free option available or adapting a home so it has a ramp entrance.
Living in a space that isn’t accessible can be dangerous for disabled people. When I lived in a fifth-floor apartment with a friend who uses a wheelchair, we ran into issues when we had an unexpected fire alarm in the building and the elevators locked down.
I waited with my friend until the building manager could unlock the elevator and let her use it. This is a fairly common policy in larger buildings with elevators, even on college campuses and when people who use wheelchairs live there.
Inaccessible spaces can lead to all kinds of consequences for disabled people, like not being able to leave in an emergency, getting sick because your home isn’t fragrance-free, or not being able to access parts of the building on your own.
These are the kinds of sacrifices and solutions that disabled people have to engineer on a regular basis because we don’t have widespread and affordable, accessible housing.
My long-term goal is to save up to move into a permanent home that’s accessible to me and all my friends so people can come over without worrying about getting inside or how they’ll navigate once they’re in.
But the burden of making these decisions shouldn’t have to be on disabled people. I’m privileged to be able to choose to live in an apartment with stairs. Many other people with mobility issues and physical disabilities can’t make that decision. It’s also a privilege to be able to save up enough money to find a home that meets all of your access needs.
We need legislation and city planning that puts disabled people and universal access at the forefront of design. We need it to be required that all homes meet accessibility needs, even if they were built before the ADA became law in 1990 or it would cost money to make them accessible.
We need a future where disabled people don’t have to panic whenever they start looking for a new place to live because most if not all homes are accessible at a variety of price points.
We need a future where disabled people don’t have to adjust to living without access to our basic needs.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She's currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.