Some Towns Seek Accessibility
Feb. 08, 2002
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NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) _ It's a matter of doorways a few inches wider and bathroom walls a little sturdier, nothing most people are likely to notice.
But to Norene Jenkins, the City Council's approval this week of building code changes that will make new homes more accessible to the disabled means much more. It means the difference between attending a birthday party and staying home, between the dignity of quietly excusing herself and the humiliation of asking for help to get into the bathroom.
``This is like walls being removed, or layers being peeled away,'' said Jenkins, 51, who uses a motorized scooter because of a virus that causes paralysis.
The action in this suburb southwest of Chicago on Tuesday came the same day officials in Pima County, Ariz., adopted similar standards for new homes. They are believed to be the first two localities in the nation to impose such requirements for all new single-family homes.
Several communities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Urbana, Ill., have similar requirements, but they are only for publicly funded homes.
In Naperville, new homes must have wider interior doors, lower light switches, higher electrical sockets and reinforced bathroom walls to allow, but not require, handrails. Pima County's ordinance is similar, with the significant additional requirement of a zero-step entrance. Naperville is expected to take up that issue in the next few months.
``What's going on is a very interesting snowball effect,'' said Eleanor Smith, a founder of Concrete Change, a Georgia-based disabled advocacy group. Smith is a leader in the push for ``visitability'' standards that make it easier for handicapped people to visit others.
``That these two would do this the same week is a big step forward,'' she said.
But some builders and other critics say the new building codes went too far.
``I thought homes were for the owners,'' said Richard Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. ``I mean, giving preference to a tiny fraction (of the population) who may never be invited to a house over people who use it every day seems to be bizarre.''
``This takes away other people's property rights,'' said J. Mark Harrison, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Illinois.
To Bill Malleris, who uses a motorized scooter to get around because of a neuromuscular disorder, the requirements are long overdue.
``There reaches a point where a situation is so dehumanizing it is wrong, morally and ethically wrong,'' he said. ``I think it is degrading when I have to use a paper cup in the kitchen to urinate because I can't use the bathroom.''
Daniel Lauber, a suburban Chicago lawyer who specializes in planning issues, said such requirements make sense for another reason.
``Naperville is being really sensitive to the needs of a growing segment of the population without hurting anybody else,'' he said. ``I mean, who really cares?''
Some builders worry about the cost of implementing the new requirements.
According to Pasquinelli Builders, which has met the standards at houses in a suburban Chicago subdivision, the price tag can be as high as $3,000.
``That may not sound like much, but it's real easy to spend somebody else's money,'' Harrison said.
In Austin, Texas, which offers financial and other incentives to developers who voluntarily include visitability standards, an official warns of another potential problem.
``If you try to make it mandatory ... you might end up with no housing,'' said Stuart Hersh, a coordinator for the city's Housing Department. ``Developers might go someplace else.''
Still, Hersh said, the days of such requirements across the country are coming. He pointed to the 1970s, when cities were starting to require builders to install insulation for new homes.
``Eventually it became universal,'' he said. ``We're kind of at that stage now with this.''
For his part, Joe Hudetz of Naperville hopes so.
``My daughter, I remember she could look out the window and see her friends,'' he said of Sarah, now 20. ``She couldn't go anywhere with them, she couldn't participate.
``I hope the kid who's a kindergartner or toddler now, this will help him.''