Accessible Design in Public Housing: NYCHA Staff Training Program

Version 4.0 July 9, 2001

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Edward Steinfeld and Danise Levine, 2001
Additional Information
Disability and the Environment
6. Trends
There are many technological and social trends that will have an impact on how public housing authorities accommodate people with disabilities in the future.
Clearly, the aging of the population will increase the proportion of older people in public housing above today's levels. The incidence of disability among the older population is considerably higher than in the younger age groups. Thus, the demand for accessible apartments will continue to increase as time goes on. The generation now approaching old age is more affluent that the current elderly population but, inner cities, where most public housing is located, have the greatest numbers of low income individuals. Thus, the relatively greater affluence of this generation of elders is not likely to reduce the demand among older people for accessible public housing units. 
Another social trend that will also have an impact is the reduction in emphasis on long term nursing and rehabilitation care facilities. More and more alternatives to nursing homes and acute care rehabilitation facilities are being developed all the time. The emphasis on community based rehabilitation care and even a renewed interest in house calls for physicians will enable many people with serious health problems to remain living independently. In fact, due to managed care programs that reduce health care options, many of these people will be forced to remain in independent housing even if they would prefer to move to nursing care and intermediate care rehabilitation facilities. We can expect to see this trend affect public housing tenants since government agencies who serve low income people like the Veterans Administration, are embracing these cost saving approaches to care rapidly. 
Rascal electric scooter
Figure 3. Rascal electric scooter
New wheelchair technology creates new requirements for space and equipment. For example, scooters are becoming more and more popular to help people with walking limitations. These devices are larger and require more space than the conventional electric wheelchair. Although they are not intended for use in small spaces, many people do use them in the kitchen and bathroom because they reduce the need for standing while preparing food or grooming. These devices require more space for turning and approaching fixtures and they make doors more difficult to open unless they are automated (Fig 3). Currently, the accessibility codes do not address clearances for scooters but there is a gathering momentum to do so.

Figure 4. Action Super Pro-T Manual wheelchair

Figure 5. Quickie P200 Power wheelchair
Manual wheelchair design is also evolving. A study completed for the New York Public Housing Authority found that lightweight, high performance chairs are becoming more popular (Fig 4). These chairs are much more maneuverable and are much shorter than other chairs but, because the wheels are cambered for improved performance, they can be much wider than traditional models. Fortunately, the camber can usually be adjusted easily for different conditions. The NYCHA study also found that the new generation of power wheelchairs are more maneuverable than conventional models and do not take up any more space (Fig 5).
Other new assistive technology includes devices that help blind people avoid obstacles and intelligent controls for power wheelchairs that remember frequently used paths of travel. Such devices will allow greater independence for people with severe disabilities.
The continuing evolution of the independent living movement will have a similar impact. Advances in independent living, particularly the availability of widespread attendant care, if it comes to pass, will make it possible for many more low-income individuals with disabilities to live in independent apartments.
Another trend that will have an impact on public housing in the future is the development of new codes and standards. Advocates for people with disabilities are very active in promoting changes to codes and standards. The ANSI A117 Standard was recently revised to include many new requirements focused on access for people with sensory impairments and people of short stature. The ADA Accessibility Guidelines are under revision. It is likely that the technical criteria in the ADAAG will be almost identical to the ANSI A117 1998 Standard when they are completed. New construction, additions, and substantial rehabilitation will have to comply with new requirements. The advent of an international building code in the next decade will bring about another cycle of revision and open up more communication with the European Union and Canada. This is likely to introduce some new methods for providing accessibility that, up to now, have not been accepted in the U.S.
Adjustable height sink
Figure 5. Height adjustable sink
Finally, one of the most important trends is the emergence of the concept of universal design as an alternative to traditional accessible design. Universal design is a process whereby environments and products are designed so they are usable by all people, regardless of age and ability, at no additional cost to the user. The idea is to create a physical environment that can be used by the broadest population possible. Universal design is accessible design with a different attitude. In universal design, a higher level of accessibility is built in from the start, often through flexibility and adaptability (see Fig. 5).
Universal design seeks to create mass-produced products, places and systems that can reduce the need (although not eliminate it) for specialized assistive products or accommodations for people with disabilities. The availability of a new generation of universally designed products for making dwellings accessible and new codes and standards that can be applied across the board in all units will increase the level of accessibility in new construction and provide a host of new product options for renovation.
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