About Visitability

A house is visitable when it meets three basic requirements:

  • one zero-step entrance.
  • doors with 32 inches of clear passage space.
  • one bathroom on the main floor you can get into in a wheelchair.


Fundamental Visitability Principles

Visitability focuses on new houses, not renovations.

The three essential features are one entrance with zero steps; 32 inches or more of clear passage space through interior doors, including bathrooms; and at least a half bathroom on the main floor.

The relevant visitability factor is a high number of visitable houses built, not a high number of features within a house.

Visitability focuses on laws and policies, not merely education or voluntary initiatives.

Because the cost of visitability is virtually zero, desirable laws do not involve added financial benefits from the public sector for developers, such as tax cuts for or other resources.

Desirable laws may tie visitability requirements to existing benefits developers choose to take from the public sector such as impact fee waivers, construction or infrastructure funds, tax cuts via the Low Income Housing Tax Credit or other source, land donated or sold below market level, and so on.

The most desirable laws and policies cover every new house (with exemption from the zero step entrance for lots where this feature is unfeasible).

Tens of thousands of visitable houses already built because of existing laws or policies demonstrate indisputably that these houses are inexpensive to construct, aesthetically pleasing, and fully marketable to the general public.

Visitable houses are beneficial, increasing personal inclusion, health and housing choice.

Unvisitable houses are harmful, undermining individual happiness and the public good. They burden public budgets, particularly through increased institutionalization of people unable to remain in their homes when mobility problems occur.

Visitability Defined

Visitability is a movement to change home construction practices so that virtually all new homes — not merely those custom-built for occupants who currently have disabilities — offer a few specific features making the home easier for mobility-impaired people to live in and visit. Several people have asked for a more detailed definition, noting that the list of required features has not been identical in all visitability-type legislation, handouts and other materials.

While the concept of visitability is simple, the definition has several interactive layers: spirit, features, scope, and moment in history.

Spirit: First, the spirit of visitability is as important as the list of features. That spirit says it’s not just unwise, but unacceptable that new homes continue to be built with gross barriers — given the how easy it is to build basic access in the great majority of new homes, and given the harsh effects major barriers have on so many people’s lives. These easily-avoided barriers cause daily drudgery; unsafe living conditions; social isolation; and forced institutionalization. The appropriate ways to further basic access are many: disseminating information; working to pass legislation; incentives (so long as they are moderate and don’t decimate a tax base, impede general affordable housing, or undermine other visitability efforts); voluntary efforts (so long as they are not programs producing few houses and at the same time forestalling legislation); street theater; advertising campaigns; civil disobedience; and others.

Features: Second, the features list must be partly rigid and partly flexible. The inflexible features are:

At least one zero-step entrance approached by an accessible route on a firm surface no steeper than 1:12, proceeding from a driveway or public sidewalk

  • Wide passage doors
  • At least a half bath/powder room on the main floor
  • No arguments are accepted that “We’ll build the house so a ramp could be added later.”

At least a half bath on the main floor now belongs as a non-negotiable feature, but it did not when the first visitability legislation was passed in Atlanta in 1992. At that early time in the movement’s history, and in the absence of precedents, passing a bill with a zero-step entrance and door width requirements in private, single-family houses was just barely possible even without the bathroom requirement. Advocates balanced the obvious need for a main floor bathroom with the law of averages that nearly all new dwellings already include that feature.

Several additional features are sometimes included in visitability initiatives (for example, reinforcement in bathroom walls and accessible placement of electrical controls.) If very low cost, they are good and appropriate. However, these additions must be flexible according to circumstance because they are so much less essential for survival than the three basic features. Each added feature elicits a set of objections and/or misconceptions to be addressed. If the strategy chosen involves enforceable legislation — which is the means by which the great majority of visitable homes have been created to date — the list of prioritized features must be short. Otherwise, passing a visitability law is currently impossible.

In voluntary efforts, more features can be included. For instance, they might require, besides the basics, also a full bathroom with designated maneuvering space and a bedroom on the main floor.

Scope: If people add to their personal definition of visitability advanced features such as a five-foot turning diameter in bathrooms, parking space requirements, a roll-in shower and so on, they are going beyond the scope of what is currently possible for rapid, broad application of Visitability, and we discourage use of the term Visitability for their initiatives. We are not averse to pushing for those advanced features per se, to the extent that they do not pose a credible threat to general housing affordability. Rather, we are against using the term visitability for additional features because it works against the reason the movement has had some success — its extreme simplicity of content, rigorous prioritization, and insistence on application not just cogitation, speculative homes not special homes.

Moment in History: The scope of the dwellings covered and the time in history of a visitability initiative, whether voluntary or legislative, are also relevant to defining the flexible, evolving visitability movement. For instance, a legislative effort requiring some access in even a small percent of private, single-family houses pushed the borders far in the 1992 Atlanta ordinance, whereas the 2000 Pima County AZ and the 2003 Bolingbrook IL ordinances expanded the borders in a major new way by covering ALL new houses, not just those with some sort of public perk. The Pima County ordinance requires only 2’8″ doors, i.e., 30 inches of clear passage space, which is 2 inches less than required by other successful legislation. That was a necessary, intelligent compromise, in our view, since 30 inches is quite helpful (although not nearly as helpful as 32) and the Pima County law covers all houses — a major, unique leap forward in 2000. That law was extremely hard for Arizona advocates to accomplish, barely passed in a 5 to 4 vote. The law was challenged in court – first on a national level, which failed, then in a local level appeal, which also failed. Therefore the law stands, and has produced many thousands of visitable homes. (The lawsuits were generated and/or assisted by politically powerful housing industry organizations, specifically NAHB and the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.)

The above history touches on the flexible part of scope as it affects features. However, a fixed part of acceptable (legislative) scope is that a legitimate law must contain an enforcement mechanism. We find problematic a document called a law but lacking an enforcement mechanism, so that in practice it is voluntary. We are in favor of voluntary initiatives, recommendations, and education campaigns as long as they are not called laws. When packaged in law-type formats, they tend to undermine other efforts to pass enforceable legislation.

On a smaller scale, any action as small as one person giving a visitability handout to a builder, or advocating visitability to a friend buying a new house, is a valuable part of the movement. The actions, large and small, of many thousands of participants are gradually reshaping how homes are built.

Early History: The Beginnings of Concrete Change

By Eleanor Smith, for the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (DRACH) – November, 2003

One day in 1986 I was driving around in Atlanta, Georgia, my home city, and I passed through a large development of new houses. As usual, there were steps at every entrance. But this time I saw the houses differently: “These homes could have all had access!”

I had driven past typical homes thousands of times since my disability came about at age three. I had paid the price of lack of access over and over again, when I could not go to friends’ parties, suffered from being unable to get my wheelchair through bathroom doors when visiting, faced great difficulty finding an apartment or house I could rent. In fact, I had lived for six months in a home where I had to crawl on the floor to enter the bathroom. And I had seen wheelchair users looking out from behind the screen doors of their inaccessible, rampless homes and walker-users sitting on their porches with no way to come down into their yards.

Nothing had changed in that moment in 1986 except a flash of noticing. (For influencing that mental jump forward, I thank the national organization ADAPT. Their rallying cry during the 70’s and 80’s, “A lift on every new bus!”, and the experience of pressing for change alongside a large group of disabled people, prepared my leap: “A zero step entry on every new house!” Over the next few months I realized that widespread change in housing construction depended on continuously focusing on the few construction barriers that create by far the most harm – lack of a zero-step entrance, narrow interior doors, and lack of access to a bathroom.

I brought this conviction to a small, local disability group, and we named our initiative “Concrete Change.” At that time we were not yet using the term “visitability” for the three essential access features, but rather ‘Basic Home Access”. We made fliers, contacted and re-contacted building groups, and wrote articles. (None of us had heard yet of the Universal Design movement or the late Ron Mace, who founded that movement – nor had Universal Design proponents heard of our work. But in recent years the two movements often have worked together, since we share significant commonalities.)

Gradually word about Concrete Change work spread, mainly through articles in small disability magazines such as The Disability Rag, The Mouth and Mainstream, and through word of mouth in the disability rights movement. During those early years, nearly all builders and architects we approached, both for-profit and non-profit, told us “It can’t be done (for X Y Z technical reason).” “It’s not needed.” “You’ve got to be kidding. This will never happen.” We persevered, and I do mean “we” not “I”–a band of about ten people with disabilities, with a support group of six able-bodied women, Lesbian Feminist Concrete Change. The Fund for Southern Communities, a regional grant-making organization committed to funding small groups who have good ideas outside the status quo, gave us our first small grant, and we clapped so loud at our meeting that our two dogs in the yard started howling.

We began to gain victories — that is, to have actual homes deliberately built with basic access for people who do not have disabilities. Our first victory was in late 1989, when the Atlanta affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, to their great credit, agreed to experiment with building every new home with basic access. By the end of 1990, they had more than 20 homes up with zero-step entrances, effectively and at very low added cost, and we had tangible, brick-and-mortar examples to point to. (As of early 2006, Habitat Atlanta has more than 600 Visitable homes constructed.)

We began to get inquiries from other places. In 1990 a young Japanese architect, a wheelchair-user, came to visit Concrete Change in Atlanta, and while conversing about the practices our group was promoting, he said, “In Europe, they use the term Visitability.” I was immediately excited about this term, since automatically it makes people think “every house, not just special houses.” Back then it was deeply assumed that only people who are currently disabled need access features in their homes — unfortunately still too often assumed. So, any term shifting that assumption was valuable. I tried to find these elusive Europeans, to learn more about how to keep moving from concept to reality, but could not find them and in fact still haven’t discovered who originated the term.

In 1991, we approached Myrtle Davis, an Atlanta City Councilperson, with a rough draft of an ordinance that would require basic access in certain private, single-family homes in Atlanta. Working together with the advocates, she shepherded the ordinance through to unanimous approval by the Council in 1992, and it became the first visitability law in the US.

Since those early days, the participants in Concrete Change and the visitability movement have expanded to many states, in steadily growing waves. Participants are initiating state and local visitability laws, handing out materials at conferences, speaking up in their local media, lobbying their local Habitat for Humanity affiliates, protesting at a Parade of (upscale) Homes that lack access, showing the Concrete Change DVD and PowerPoints to local groups, passing out balloons that say “Every Home Visitable,” and in general working as individuals or in small groups to make change.

Starting Point

Whatever you call it — accessible, universal design, life-time homes, adaptable, visitable — this site is about working together for basic access in ALL homes.

It’s not about access to public buildings — or helping builders create “niche marketing” for disabled or older people — or how to build your own fully accessible house from A to Z (click here if that’s what you need). It’s not about retrofitting existing homes for a person who’s become disabled, important as that is.

It is about correcting current building practices, which have disabled people and their allies desperately seeking help to undo existing barriers — while a half-mile down the road a new development is going up constructing exactly those same barriers. The word “visit-able” works well to express our goal because it rightly implies:

A focus on homes, not government buildings, stores, restaurants, etc. (which are already covered in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990)

ALL homes, not just “special” homes; being at the party, the meeting, the reunion — not isolation.

Narrowing the emphasis from a long list of possible or desirable access features to the most essential features: entering a home and fitting through the interior doors. So that widespread construction change is more likely to happen quickly. As a co-worker summarized: “Get in and pee”.

What’s At Stake

Why work toward universal access? Why not just more “housing for the elderly and disabled”? Here are some stories:

Your cousin in another town has invited you to a family Thanksgiving at his new house. During the drive, you stop at a McDonald’s to use the restroom because you’re not sure whether your cousin’s bathroom will be accessible. When you arrive at the house, your relatives pull you up the three steps. As you tour the house, you politely show enthusiasm for the decor, but what you’re really noticing is that although your wheelchair can enter the bedrooms, there is no way you’ll fit through the bathroom door. Shortly after dinner, you leave because you don’t want to participate in the to-do and embarrassment of being carried into the bathroom. You feel frustrated at having to leave while the family stories and laughter are still in full swing.

You’re twelve. You’re very outgoing, and you’ve made quite a few friends at your middle school; you sit with them at lunch and basketball games. One day at lunch Sarah bursts out to Kim, “I can’t wait till Friday night!” Kim shoots a guilty look at you. The group gets quiet, and someone changes the subject. Later Kim tells you she wanted to invite you to her sleep-over, but she couldn’t because there’s a long, steep flight of steps leading to her house. Your instincts tell you not to muck up the friendship by making Kim feel worse, so you make a joke and tell her it’s okay, but inside you feel bad. Kim feels bad too, but she doesn’t know what to do or how to talk about it.

Your family has to scrape by to pay the basic bills. Over the years, complications have developed from your diabetes. You had to retire years earlier than you’d planned from your package delivery job, and now you use a wheelchair. You live with your daughter and her kids. Two months ago, the landlord sold the house and gave notice to your family. With luck your daughter found a nearby house to rent, but there are four steps up to the lowest entrance. You have to adjust to staying in the house all day nearly every day, unable to go into the yard to catch some sun or push down to the nearby shopping center. Local errands you used to run to help your daughter aren’t possible any more. You get depressed with your daughter at work and the kids at school. There is no way your family can afford the $4,500 or more it would cost to add a ramp, and the publicly-funded home modification program you contacted regrets that they have a long waiting list.

You’re in great physical shape because you bike to work and play tennis every chance you get. One day, you get clipped by a car while rollerblading. The day after your hip surgery, the doctor says you can leave the hospital in a few days, and you’ll eventually be as strong and mobile as ever. You’re tremendously relieved. But the doctor’s orders include using a wheelchair for at least six weeks — before graduating to crutches for another six. With a sinking feeling, you realize your apartment has steps, but you don’t remember how many, or have a feel for how wide your doors are. A couple of your friends check out your apartment and report there are eight steps and a wheelchair won’t fit through the bathroom door. Even to you, a fairly adventurous person, it doesn’t sound like a safe place to recuperate. The endless tangle of logistics during the next months exhausts you more than your injury does.

As CEO of a company that builds more than fifty homes a year even in the recession, you’re financially comfortable and doing well in all ways. Then your wife develops a tumor on her spine. Although the surgery removes the cancer, your wife now has paraplegia. Before she comes home from the rehab hospital, you spend $20,000 and many stressful hours remodeling your house for access. Within a year, your wife has re-built her life, is driving with hand controls, serving on committees, and being mom to the one child still at home. But here’s whose homes your wife can no longer visit without huge effort on her part and yours: your adult son and his family; your adult daughter and her family; all but one of your siblings and hers; the couple you’ve been best friends with for years; and nearly all of the other friends and relatives in your address book. All this adds up to the most devastating part of the disability. Wincing, you remember that a few years ago you called your city councilperson to help de-rail advocates’ efforts at home access legislation. And you think about what easily could have been done differently in the hundreds of houses your company has built. The company now builds all its new houses with basic access because you do care what happens to people.

Age 84, you live in Fair Meadows and use a walker to get around. You wish you had a scooter like those you’ve seen on TV, but really there’d be nowhere to go outside the facility, since it’s on the far outskirts of town. After a stroke five years ago, you never returned home. While you were in the rehab hospital, your son came from out of state to stay a while, and he learned it would take at least $20,000 to renovate your home even to a basic, useable level. Under time pressure to make a decision, you both agreed that choosing a contractor, going through major renovations, and spending a lot of money did not make sense. The unspoken possibility that another medical crisis might happen soon was in your minds. In fact, no further medical crisis has occurred. Paying what Medicare didn’t cover for the nursing home, you’ve run through your savings and the profit from selling your house and now are on Medicaid, sharing a small room with a stranger. You realize that if your house had allowed you to move back in a timely way, your savings would have covered many years of help a few hours each day — or you might have offered your spare bedroom to a compatible person in exchange for help — and with Meals on Wheels and a few other community services, you would have made it in your much-loved old neighborhood. Maybe even running around on a scooter.

Inaccessible houses impede the lives of people who use wheelchairs, walkers or are mobility impaired in other ways. Visiting in an inaccessible house means the danger of falling on entry steps, the worry and embarrassment of being kept from using the bathroom, the social awkwardness of being carried, the frustration of not being able to knock on the door to see if someone’s home.

Inaccessibility makes friendships harder to create and cuts people off from meetings where information is exchanged and decisions made. Inacessibility causes people with disabilities and their families not to be invited, or to have to turn down invitations. If they have low incomes, as many disabled people do, inaccessibility often forces them to live in houses where they may literally have to crawl every time they use the bathroom, or stay inside all day because of the steps. Further, inaccessibility forces many people into nursing homes.

These are serious matters. And yet…

  • Most builders do not yet construct routine access in new houses.
  • Most buyers have not yet begun to demand it.
  • Most policy makers have not yet made it a priority
  • Work with us to change these realities!

Visitability Groups

  • Green / Sustainability
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • NAHB / Realtors
  • New Urbanism / TND
  • Affordable Housing
  • Older People