Home tech and accessible products for people with disabilities and seniors aging in place are not as common as one might imagine. Unfortunately, neither is accessible housing. Accessible housing is that which affords people with disabilities their right to fully use a space without endangering or unreasonably inconveniencing them. Sadly, such housing is stunningly rare in the United States. According to The League – an organization passionate about the independent living movement – fewer than “2% of housing units nationwide are accessible.” Furthermore, “fewer than five percent of units are livable for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties.”
Other studies have estimated around 6% of households are “adequately accessible” for those with a disability. These data are especially shocking given that – as outlined by the CDC – “61 million adults in the United States live with a disability.” 26% – one in four – of American adults deal with a physical or cognitive disability. As such, the PWD community makes up the largest minority group in the country. Yet – thirty years after the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act – many governmental, commercial and private buildings remain inaccessible to the disabled.
COVID-19 Pandemic Poses Unique Challenges to People with Disabilities
Several key moments this year have highlighted the painful disparity in accessibility to public and private spaces between the disabled and the non-disabled. First, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the way in which all people access public spaces – from restaurants to hardware stores. In Los Angeles in May 2020, Mayor Garcetti announced that restaurants could receive temporary sidewalk permits. The goal of the order was to allow outdoor dining with adequate social distancing between diners.
Unfortunately – these allowances restrict the amount of traversable space for those with mobility disabilities. Particularly disadvantaged are those using walkers or wheelchairs or those who experience difficulty balancing. A 2006 brief by the County of LA Public Health department noted that “nearly 1.3 million adults in LA County reported having a disability.” Of this number, “over three quarters of PWDs reported having a physical disability defined by a lack of mobility.” Furthermore, the likelihood of disability increased with age. The report found that “over one-third (36%) of those 65 years” and older reported a disability. In 2015, the County Report for Disability Prevalence reported that 10.5% of Californians lived with a disability.
Public Buildings Remain Inaccessible Despite Growing Representation of PWDs in Government
(Above Left) The Arizona State Capitol building, pictured above, has been retrofitted in recent years to be more accessible for PWDs. According to Bente Birkeland of NPR, only seven states have amended their Capitol buildings recently to appropriately suit PWD lawmakers. Arizona’s Capitol -- which had only a single accessible bathroom -- was one such building.
In fact – notes the CDC – 13.7% of all Americans live with a mobility-related disability, with an additional 6.8% struggling to live independently with current technology and accessibility challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown this number – and our attitudes as a nation towards accessibility for PWDs – into the light in recent months. With the quarantine and stay-at-home orders necessitated by the pandemic, many PWDs of all ages – but especially seniors – have been particularly challenged. Interestingly, this year of unprecedented series of challenges has also produced the election of Colorado’s first state lawmaker who uses a wheelchair. The exciting and arguably well-deserved appointment was announced earlier this week.
Unfortunately – note Bente Birkeland and David Greene of NPR’s Morning Edition – “the 130-year-old Capitol building where Rep.-Elect David Ortiz will work isn’t totally accessible.” Retrofitting of the Capitol will be required in order for Representative-Elect Ortiz to properly work for the people who elected him. Even after the changes – explains Birkeland – “Ortiz [will not have] the same access to the chamber as other lawmakers.” Birkeland notes that “when it’s his turn to preside over the House floor, six staffers will step in to lift [Ortiz] to the podium.”
Home Tech for Seniors Aging in Place and PWDs Grows – But Not Enough
High-profile stories of inspiring PWDs in leadership like Ortiz or notable veteran and Senator Tammy Duckworth help raise awareness of accessibility challenges for PWDs. However, the home – whether apartment or single-family house – continues to lag behind. Though there have been advancements in accessible home tech geared towards PWDs, much remains to be done. Disparities in price of units, cost of installation and simple availability in certain areas of the country can be enormous for such products.
Sophie Mitra explains the disparity in her article “The hidden extra costs of living with a disability“ for The Conversation. She writes that “living with a disability may cost an additional several thousand dollars per year.” This extra cost “add[s] up over time to be a significant financial burden on households.” “Simple fixes” like lowering kitchen cabinets, replacing sinks, leveling a walkway or adding a ramp can add thousands of dollars to a home remodel. According to the article “How Much Does it Cost: Disability Remodeling” from remodeling site FIXR.com, lowering kitchen cabinets and appliances costs – on average – around $15,000 alone. Changing kitchen counter heights can add a couple extra thousand and widening doorways costs around $700 per entryway. Home tech companies have begun to take notice of the enormous expenses undertaken by PWDs and by seniors hoping to age in place.
Home Technology Startups Address the Lack of Accessible Products for People with Disabilities and Those Aging in Place
Many home tech products are still considered “luxury” and are largely inaccessible to those hoping to retrofit their homes without spending past their budget. However, there are a few companies offering price-point accessible products for people with disabilities and those aging in place. Specifically, a number of companies in North America have committed to creating homeware products that reduce limitations on independent living. Canadian start-up Leafi – founded by Will Wang, Chris Pang, and Michelle Li – designs affordable smart home solutions intended to remove both inconveniences and actual boundaries from non-PWDs and those living with a disability.
Their auto-blinds are seamlessly integrated into any home, as they are compatible with leading smart home platforms and local interfaces. Easy to both install and manage post-installation, Leafi’s auto-blinds can be controlled from one’s mobile phone or tablet – from anywhere. Leafi’s auto-blinds remove a challenging element of independent living. They allow users to open their blinds without climbing over a couch or leaning behind a chair. Given that sun exposure is essential to mental health, Leafi’s offering of affordable, accessible smart blinds is an important contribution to the homeware industry.