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Wednesday, July 11, 2007 12:22 pm

Able and ready

City moves to expand housing opportunities for the disabled

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Untitled Document Beverly Beard says that it wasn’t easy growing up with a disability in Springfield. Polio robbed Beard at an early age of the ability to walk, forcing her to scoot up and down the stairs of her family’s two-story home. More than 50 years later, she says, housing options for the disabled continue to be virtually nonexistent.
“When I started looking for a place that I could get in and out of and into the bathroom, it was very hard,” says Beard, “and every place had steps.”
Beard, who has previously lived in high-rise apartments but dislikes them for safety reasons, says that others in Springfield feel the same way. “You have a very high population of people with disabilities in this town, and there are just not the single-family dwellings that need to be here,” she says. “People don’t feel safe in high-rises; they are wanting something that is on the ground floor.”
After years of pushing for change, Beard and other disabled citizens of Springfield were awarded a major victory last week when the City Council unanimously passed a new “visitability” ordinance. The approved code states that any new one- or two-family home built with financial assistance from the city must comply with specific design requirements to ensure that the homes are visitable and livable for persons with disabilities.
The city and several organizations — among them the Springfield Center for Independent Living, the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, and the Springfield Disabilities Commission — worked out the terms of the ordinance, one of only a few adopted in Illinois. “It’s a positive step forward,” says Jim Donelan, executive assistant to Mayor Tim Davlin. “It shows that we’re proactive and take the needs of the disabled in the city of Springfield very seriously.”
Similar city ordinances have been proposed but met with opposition from local homebuilders. Beard, chairwoman of the Springfield Disabilities Commission’s visitable-housing subcommittee, says that homebuilders gradually realized that they would benefit from the ordinance. “Homebuilders have figured out that if you build a house now that is visitable, it is a good selling point,” she says, “plus it doesn’t cost as much as if you have to go in and retrofit a house.”
Homebuilders must comply with the visitability code by providing: • One entrance with zero steps, plus an exterior doorbell if that entrance is located in a garage. • A 32-inch clear passage through every interior door, including bathrooms. • Wall switches set 48 inches from the floor to control light fixtures and fans. • At least one bathroom on the main floor, with reinforced walls to support grab bars. • Hallways 42 inches wide. In addition to providing more suitable housing options and eliminating design features that pose barriers to the disabled, Beard says, the ordinance will work to prepare all of Springfield’s families for the future.
“If the younger generation would understand that one of these days they’re going to get old,” says Beard, “and these houses they’re paying lots of money for, they’re not going to be able to live in because of the steps and everything.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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