Last week my son and I took a trip to look for an apartment for him to live in this fall. We are so proud of him finishing his Master’s and moving on to the Ph.D. Looking for an apartment takes on some extra meaning due to his cerebral palsy and his use of a mobility scooter to get to and around the campus. The school maintains a website you can peruse to find housing options. It also includes parameters by which you can narrow your search, like price, location and even whether or not the space is disability accessible. We made a list of the apartments he could afford, and a few he could not, and set out to see all of them over a three-day trip. I have to say that what these apartments mean by "accessible" varied widely from place to place. Some of them made me question how they even qualified.
The first high-end apartment complex we went to had a concierge and someone manning the door, so it would not be hard for my son to get into the building, it had spacious elevators that he could enter and exit easily. Most of the doors – to the pool on the 6th floor, to the meeting rooms and gym and the apartments, were manual and required a fob to open. These would be a little more difficult to manipulate. At least each floor was flat once you reached it. There were washers and dryers in each apartment for laundry and trash chutes on each floor. The problem with this option was expense. Top dollar got you lots of nice things, but he is paying his own expenses out of his stipend, and he still needs money to eat. If he could have lived on the free Dunkin’ Doughnuts in the lobby every Monday, we would have been fine; otherwise, we had to keep looking! We looked at others which cost just as much and found different results; one had electric door openers and one did not, one had wide halls and open floor plans to maneuver in, some apartments he would not have been able to turn around in. What baffles me is that all of these "expensive" options occupied new buildings, none older than ten or twelve years, so how did some of them get away with such poor ADA compliance?
Understand, the school has large areas of brownstone-style homes which are all for rent to students for much cheaper, but all of them have a set of ten to twelve steps up to the front door and so are not even an option for my son. Even a step or two means no access, so we had to continue our search for buildings that claimed access. Next stop were the older buildings. These are the ones that have had some retrofitting done; by retrofitting, I mostly mean they have put in a ramp next to the stairs. One had a ramp that, if taken at some speed or a slight angle would put my son out of his seat and onto the cement. That hurdle was in place before you got to the large wooden door, which opens outward and would require a coordination of access code with door pulling for two sets of doors before you reached the lobby. That was, sadly, the most encouraging part. The complex was built in 1929 and gave off a serious "Bates Motel" feeling. You were also required to buy an air-conditioning unit which they would install for you. It felt like a place people go to die, not study. It also had the laundry in place down a narrow, dark hall in the basement. To get to the basement, you had to use old, creepy, small elevators. And somehow this was listed as accessible? I noticed one common denominator. If you could get to the entrance, not necessarily the front entrance, with a wheelchair or cart they listed themselves as accessible; it didn’t particularly matter that you could get in the door or even to the elevators to go up to the floors. None of that registered with anyone other than the university’s official student housing. Student housing, however, had its issues. They had electric front doors and a 24-hour front desk to assist if needed, and door openers on the floors which had ADA rooms. They even had a roll in shower with assistive hardware in the bathroom, but the room itself was near impossible to enter. The distance between the wall and kitchen counter was barely wide enough to fit the mobility scooter my son was using, and this was a smaller model we took just for traveling. The other issue with the housing was that it looked more like a 1970s hospital room than a place for a college student to live.
In the end, he decided on an older building which was one block from campus but will require some door maneuvers for him to enter. It didn’t have laundry in every apartment, but it is on the same floor. The answer the leasing agent gave me regarding the front door was that there is always someone coming or going, so he will probably get help when he needs it. That isn’t terribly comforting to me; that my son will need strangers to assist him to get into his apartment every day for the next five years unless he decides that he can afford the luxury places.
We have made strides. ADA has made life a lot better for many people with disabilities. For example, most of the sidewalks had ramp curbs so we could get around town, and only a few restaurants we wanted to eat at did not have a ramp. Once we ate at an outdoor table, and another time we just went somewhere else. I see that things have improved in many ways, but when it comes to my son having all that I think he needs to succeed, I think we still have a long way to go!