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Accessible Housing Design from the User’s Perspective

Reading between the lines

I thought that, while I’m on the topic of social design (see post 2 and post 3), I would make reference to an accessible subsidized housing research project I completed last year. Accessible (or ‘universal’) design allows individuals with limited mobility to enter, exit, and move around inside a building. Undoubtedly, accessibility should be considered in housing because of the aging population, and the increasing number of people with disabilities living independently. For example, homes that accommodate wheelchair users (e.g., built-in leg space under sinks, adjustable countertops, light switches at sitting height, and wider hallways) can ease day-to-day living and encourage independent behavior.

Generally, the research project focused on uncovering an optimal model for constructing or renovating accessible subsidized housing units in British Columbia, Canada. Some of the data came from residents of both accessible and non-accessible homes. We wanted to understand and compare how they experienced each room in their unit, and about their attitudes about their unit overall.

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A summary of a portion of the results has been published in Psynopsis, a quarterly magazine put out by the Canadian Psychological Association, and can be found here. However, what isn’t included in the summary is how emotional and human I found this research to be. We used a questionnaire to ask residents about how satisfied they were with accessible design attributes in their homes, but many candid responses went beyond the Likert scales. These honest descriptions made me realize how impactful evidence-based research can be. Certainly, collecting provincial data about whether a housing model is working economically is important. But asking people about how they use their home… whether they feel safe and healthful; what they would like to see changed; and what they anticipate needing in the future is critical to build a knowledge base about accessible design and how it affects people in subsidized housing.

The study showed that the current model for building accessible subsidizing housing in BC is working well. On average, residents are satisfied with their units and specific accessible design attributes, such as the amount of space allocated in kitchens to open appliance doors, seem to be adequate. But, for me, the study did not end after the final report was written. I couldn’t help but wonder about the particulars for each resident who returned a survey. What was their family life like? Were they in good health? Would they see any changes to their unit based on the results of the project?

Of course, not every comment scribbled by elderly hands in the margins could be analysed. Some were illegible, while others were irrelevant to the question being asked (participants likely wanted to tell someone of perceived authority their thoughts on an issue). But many statements were thought provoking and heart warming. For example, the simple consideration of making windows large and low enough to look through while laying in bed is key, many said. One woman wrote how safe she felt in her unit because of the grab bars in the shower and near the sink – she had fallen in the last place she lived. Another wrote that she was homesick, and wished she could still live at her family’s farm because she missed her garden. Many residents said they expected to be in their unit until the end of their lives. See? This is serious stuff.

And so, it became even more important for me to articulate in the study the particular accessible elements that make residents feel well, safe, and generally satisfied during what is likely an emotional and reflective time of life. Social design promotes user input, habitability, and the fostering of positive outcomes inside physical spaces. Universal design encourages the same. This project asked users how they felt and sought to use this input to inform how decisions are made – I’m glad to have been a part of it.

Lindsay J. McCunn, MSc is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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