Few things represent independence as much as living in and maintaining your own home do. Owning or renting a house indicates that you are capable of taking care of yourself and free to live your life as you please — but this isn't the case for every homeowner or renter living in a house. People with disabilities or who are elderly might not feel autonomy, or even comfort, in their homes, as many houses in the United States are not designed to be accessible or accommodating.
In fact, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Accessibility of America's Housing Stock: Analysis of the 2011 American Housing Survey, less than 5% of U.S. housing is accessible for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties, and less than one percent is accessible for people who use wheelchairs. The report also notes, though, that about one-third of housing in the United States is “potentially modifiable” to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Modifying a home to make it accommodating is a matter of the utmost importance for people who are elderly or have a disability, as it makes a house more comfortable — and less dangerous — to live in.
However, modifying or remodeling a home isn't always easy. The process can get more complicated when you're making a house more accessible, rather than simply making aesthetic changes. You have to know certain aspects of the law in order to protect yourself and your rights, be familiar with the exact modifications you need, and may need to seek out financial assistance to undertake the project at all. Luckily, this guide to home improvement for individuals with disabilities and older adults will explain exactly what you need to know to modify your home, or the home of a loved one, to make it more accessible.
There are federal laws and policies in place to ensure your rights aren't infringed upon, and to protect individuals with disabilities, as well as older adults, from discriminatory practices. Before starting the remodeling or modification process, you should know what your rights are. This is especially important if you are renting your home, in the event that you experience any pushback from your landlord or the person who owns the property.
Invoking these laws and vocally stating your rights can make the process of modifying your home go more smoothly. According to various different laws and statutes, you do have the right to make your home more accessible, even if you aren't the homeowner. Here are the most relevant laws and protections you should be familiar with:
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, and this law prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program that receives HUD funds or federal financial assistance. HUD notes that this federal law protects “persons with disabilities, persons associated with persons with disabilities, and other persons engaged in certain protected activities under the law.” Essentially, under Section 504, someone cannot refuse to sell or rent a home to you because you have a disability.
Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also called the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in housing-related activities based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. Housing-related activities include renting or buying a home, obtaining a mortgage, and looking for housing assistance, but there are additional protections for federally-assisted housing as well. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal for landlords to “fail or delay performance of maintenance or repairs.” There are additional protections for people with disabilities that require housing providers to allow you to make “reasonable accommodations” that are necessary to comfortably live in your house.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first passed in 1990 and provides protections for individuals with disabilities in all public areas, including employment, education, transportation, and housing. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all public programs, services, and activities. This applies to housing if it is made available by any public entity. Title III of the ADA prohibits private entities that own and operate public places from discriminating on the basis of disability, and it requires “places of public accommodation and commercial facilities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with established accessibility standards.”
If you are renting a home and you have a disability, you have additional federal protections in place to ensure you aren't discriminated against by your landlord or property owner. More specifically, you have the right to modify a rental unit to make it safer and more comfortable to live in. Be prepared to offer written proof of your disability, as well as a description of the modifications and any other information your landlord might need, such as what permits are required or an estimate of the cost. All modifications are subject to approval by your landlord, and if you do choose to modify their property, you may also have to restore it to its original state before moving out.
There isn't a single, universal way to modify a home to make it more accommodating to an older adult or someone with a disability. Depending on your home, a simple modification may do the trick, but in other cases, a full remodel may be needed. Modifications should be based around your disability and what you need in a home to make it accessible, comfortable, and safe. Even if you have the same disability as another person, you may not need the same accommodations as that individual. However, there are a few common alterations in key spaces that many people use to make their homes more accessible:
Bathrooms frequently need updates to be less dangerous to seniors or people with mobility limitations. Between smooth surfaces and water from sinks and showers, it's all too easy to slip and fall in a bathroom. Further, bathrooms are essential to daily life, and you must be able to use yours without difficulty or fear of injury. Common bathroom modifications include:
Bedrooms are another room in the house that often need some adjustments or modifications to be used safely when you have a disability. Many of the ways you can make your bedroom more accessible depend on your furniture and how you arrange it. For instance, your bed should be at a height that's easy to get in and out of and there should be enough space so you can maneuver around it with a mobility aid if needed. Some larger bedroom modifications include:
You likely will spend less time in your yard than in your bathrooms and bedrooms, but it's still important that you're able to get around or navigate through your front, back, and side yards safely. Keep in mind that even if you do modify your yards, the weather and seasons can still make conditions difficult or unsafe for you. Fog, rain, snow, smoke, and wind can all present hazards outdoors. Always be aware of extreme weather conditions too so you can plan accordingly or ask someone for assistance if you need it.
Kitchens are another room in your home that need to be accessible and safe for you to use in your daily life. Much like bathrooms, they have slippery surfaces that often get wet, but kitchens are also full of potentially dangerous tools. This, combined with how frequently it needs to be used, makes your kitchen one of the most important rooms in your home to modify so it is accessible for you. Common kitchen accommodations include:
When it comes to the living room, you'll want to make a lot of the same considerations as you would for a bedroom. For instance, many people like to have softer flooring like carpet in living rooms and bedrooms, but if it's too thick, it could impede individuals with mobility-based disabilities. Be sure to carefully consider what type of flooring and furniture you use in the living room, just as you would a bedroom. Other modifications you may want to consider in a living room include:
Keep in mind that these are just a few of the many ways you can modify your house to be more accessible. Depending on what your disability is and what you need to live in your home comfortably, you may need to make all, some, or none of these modifications. You may have to make different modifications that are completely unique to your needs. Always do what you need to make your home safe, comfortable, and liveable.
Making small updates and tweaks to your home is fairly simple, and you may be able to do some of them on your own or with the help of a loved one. However, if you need to remodel a whole room, or the entire house, you'll probably want to consider getting help from a professional. Before you speak with a contractor, though, you need to understand what will go into the project. For instance, if you're going to remodel your kitchen, you should know exactly what kinds of appliances you want to replace or cabinets you want to install. This way, you'll have a rough idea of how long the project will take, what it might cost, and how to find the right contractor for the job.
Depending on the changes you want to make, modifying and remodeling your home can get expensive. Additionally, people with disabilities experience poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. For many individuals with a disability, funding an extensive home modification project may be out of the question. Fortunately, you can get help if you can't afford the costs associated with making your house more accessible. There are several different organizations that offer grants and financial assistance specifically to individuals with disabilities who need to modify their homes.
Rebuilding Together AmeriCorps is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that works to build and repair homes for families all over the country, including senior citizens and people with disabilities. Through their [Re]Build program, they repair homes for families, older adults, people with disabilities, and people affected by disasters. For information on how to enlist their help and services, find your local affiliate on their website.
The US Department of Health and Human Services offers a program to help cover the cost of energy- and weatherproofing-related repairs, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). If you need help managing the cost of your energy bills, weatherproofing your home, or modifying your home to make it more energy-efficient, this is a great option. To be eligible for this grant, you must meet certain income requirements and have a resident in your home who is younger than six years old, elderly, or living with a disability. For more information about how to apply, contact your local or state LIHEAP office.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs provides several different programs to help veterans get the financial assistance they need to modify their homes. Three of them are grants, and the third option is a loan.
To apply for any of the three grants, you can use the online eBenefits portal, send your application in the mail, or go in-person to your local VA benefits office. To apply for the VA-backed cash-out refinance loan, you must find a lender who will give you the loan, apply for the Certificate of Eligibility, and follow the lender's process for closing the loan.
The United States Department of Agriculture provides funding for housing repairs through the Rural Housing Repair Loans and Grants Program. This program gives loans and grants to very low-income, rural homeowners so they can repair, improve, or modernize their home, or so they can remove health and safety hazards from their homes. To qualify, you must be a low-income homeowner, a US citizen or permanent legal resident who lives in a rural area, and be at least 62 years old. You can apply for a grant or loan online, or find your local service center to do so in person.
Improving your house and modifying it to fit your needs can be difficult, and if you have a disability or are an older adult, the process can get even more complex. However, it's well worth the investment to make your home safe and comfortable to live in, and you have plenty of resources that can help support you in your efforts to make your home more accessible.