Accessible Design in Public Housing: NYCHA Staff Training Program

Version 4.0 July 9, 2001

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Disability and the Environment

3. Individual differences

As the definitions above imply, there are vast differences between individuals with disabilities. These differences can be related the differences between impairments, the severity of a particular impairment, the presence of more than one impairment and personal factors such as experience with a disability, motivation, education and other factors. Thus, it is important to avoid stereotypical thinking about what an individual with a disability can or cannot do or what is best for each individual. In particular, with the exception of individuals whose judgement and self awareness may be impaired or distorted, most individuals with disabilities know what is best for themselves.

Here is an example from a real incident that demonstrates the importance of individual differences....

An older woman had a serious hip problem that caused great pain when she walked long distances. She lived on the first floor of a walk- up cooperative apartment building with her husband who was a carpenter. She requested permission from the co-op board to build a small staircase from her balcony to the lawn below and to obtain a reserved parking space in the parking lot behind her unit. Her husband would build the stairway at his expense. This would make her trip to the parking lot very direct - only about 20 feet from her living room door. The board refused the request and offered instead to build, at the co-op's expense, a 30 foot ramp at the front door to her building and reserve a parking spot at the entry to the courtyard on which the building was located, about 200 feet from her apartment. The board assumed that anyone who had difficulty walking would rather have a ramp than walk stairs and did not get the message that distance was more important to her than eliminating stairs.

After a lengthy court battle based on the provisions of the Fair Housing Law, the board settled the case for $90,000 plus lawyers fees and agreed to build the stairway.

The implication of this story for housing professionals is that wherever one is trying to solve a problem of an individual, get them involved in the decision making. Often, you will find that they do not need as much of an accommodation as one would think. When designing or planning modifications for buildings as a whole, get advice from many people with disabilities who are drawn from the population who might live in the building. It is also important to build choices into a design wherever possible. For example, if there are apartments that mirror each other so that one is left-handed and one is right-handed, try to make some of each accessible. That way, people who use wheelchairs and find it easier to transfer to the left and those who find it easier to transfer to the right will both be better accommodated.