It’s Memorial Day weekend, and in one of the many apartment complexes in Ames, a man is making his way down the four flights of stairs to his car. A woman is following him, carrying his wheelchair. I am that woman and the man is my partner, a paraplegic forced to maneuver the stairways of our apartment complex because the elevator is out of order for the third time in six months.
This time, the elevator went out of order on May 22 and was out until late the following Wednesday. On May 24, my partner received a text from someone in the office, asking if he was “going to be around this weekend,” because the elevator was going to be broken until Tuesday. An hour later, everyone in the complex received an email from the office stating the same thing, and that they would be taking the weekend off, including the holiday.
Unlike the people in the office, my partner did not have the weekend off. In fact, he worked every day of the week that the elevator was broken. He is very independent and adaptable, and he was able to traverse the four flights of stairs to the parking garage— sometimes with me carrying his wheelchair, other times left to figure it out himself. However, he is part of just a small percentage of disabled individuals who have the physical strength to go up and down stairs— with extreme difficulty and the help of forearm crutches.
When I asked him about his thoughts on the situation and the office’s message to him, he responded, “After the first three days, it was frustrating because this was the third time this had happened in the six and a half months we’ve lived here. It seemed like they were just trying to cover for themselves, instead of making it a priority to get it fixed.”
For those living with disabilities, living in their own home, rented or owned, is a major step to independence.
According to the 2017 American Community Survey, 12.7% of the U.S. population has some form of a disability — that’s about 40.6 million Americans. Now, not all of these individuals require special equipment or adaptations to their home, but an estimated 20 million (6.9%) Americans have an ambulatory disability that may require a mobility device or alterations to their home. Some of these alterations include lower sinks and counters, adapted showers or bathtubs or no-step entries.
On a search of Apartments.com, there were 515 apartment units in Ames with wheelchair access, 160 with an elevator, but only 79 with both. The 515 results with only wheelchair access are only accessible to wheelchair users on the first floor, and these apartments are frequently the first to go, usually taken by people who don’t want to climb the stairs after a long day at work or descend the stairs in the middle of the night to let their dog out.
There is a common misconception that just because a space (including apartments) is ADA-compliant, it is automatically accessible for all. This is not the case. The ADA (and therefore public building code) is designed for small-stature, adaptable, independent individuals, not for the incredible diversity of the disabled community.
An aspect these search results don’t take into account is the layout of the apartments, which is a critical factor when determining the true accessibility of a space. One part of an apartment that many wheelchair users find incredibly inaccessible is the kitchen. Many apartments in Ames have kitchens that are too narrow to fit a wheelchair into — powered or manual— and provide maneuverable space. This space must also be large enough for the wheelchair user to open and access cabinets comfortably, which even fewer apartments provide.
While sitting on the couch clicking through images of various local apartment complexes’ kitchens, incessantly asking my partner “what about this one?” as I showed him images, he mentioned something I hadn’t thought of. “It’s really the bathrooms that you have to pay attention to,” he commented.
I was momentarily floored — our apartment has a very spacious bathroom, with two entrances, so I’d never paid it a moment’s notice. This realization made me go through all of my open tabs — complexes with at least one floor plan with an accessible kitchen — and look at their bathrooms.
Sure enough, even fewer of these had bathrooms wide enough to accommodate my partner, who is by no stretch of the imagination a large man; his wheelchair is only 24 inches wide at its widest point. Whether or not a wheelchair user is able to turn around also contributes to the overall accessibility of a space. The distance needed to turn around is determined by the depth of the chair from the back of the rear wheels to the front of the footplate plus the distance the user’s feet extend over the front of their footplate.
Now, let’s say there is an apartment complex that has only perfect, realistically accessible apartments, but all of the first floor is occupied. Normally, this would rule this complex out for potential mobility-impaired tenants, but let’s say this complex has an elevator. Now, this complex is an option.
Skip forward a few months, and now the elevator is broken. Depending on the ability of the aforementioned tenant, they are now forced to remain in their apartment until the elevator is fixed, rely on others to assist in traversing the stairways or risk hauling their assistive equipment up and down the stairs alone — potentially injuring themselves or damaging their equipment permanently.
Those of us who are able-bodied have the privilege of not needing to think about accessibility constantly, which can lead to it seeming like a small or invisible problem — but it isn’t. The world is built by and for able-bodied people, and this is evident when looking at apartments in Ames. Hopefully as conversations begin at the city level, changes to apartment code will change and conditions will improve.