Up until the night of January 22, 2011, I viewed everything through the lens of most Americans. Stairs were not obstacles that got in the way of me getting into a friend’s or family member’s house. I did not have to go searching for curb cuts to cross the street. I also never had to search for ramps and elevators to navigate around parking lots and buildings. I never even knew what the lines were for next to the handicapped parking spots. I was able-bodied like most Americans but on that night I was in a horrific car accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down. I was left only with a good right hand and partial use of my left hand. Today I’m more than grateful for every waking moment but there are new obstacles I have had to face.

Now living life as a wheelchair user, my perspective quickly started to change. I started to view things through a different lens. Once I integrated back into the community I saw the obstacles everywhere. But the first obstacle I came across was moving back home. Thankfully I have a very supportive family and my dad and my uncle were able to install a lift in the garage. The lift entered a new doorway into our living room to bypass the stairs surrounding the house so that I could just get in the door. But that was just the beginning of a process that is called retrofitting a home that is not initially set up for somebody with a disability.

Doorways had to be widened to meet ADA standards so that my power wheelchair could navigate through the entire house. When I first moved home I had to take bed baths until the bathroom across the hall from my bedroom was completely modified with a roll-in shower, a widened doorway for a shower chair, a wheelchair, and enough space to navigate around. A roll-in shower has a zero entry base so it makes it possible for a shower chair to get into. It is helpful for all people with physical disabilities because it does not create any barriers to entry. Grab bars also had to be installed for safety in the shower. 

There are resources available such as a Medicaid waiver if you qualify where they will give you $10,000 a year to go towards home modifications. Unfortunately, if you have a sudden injury such as a spinal cord injury you are going to be discharged faster than you would receive those resources. Also, the process of getting approved takes a long time and has to go through multiple bidders to get anything done. They also only approve one accessible entrance so if you’re looking to have an additional exit in case of an emergency like a fire or just to get to your backyard that’s going to come out of your pocket and the dollars add up. They’re also not going to pay to get you down to your basement or anything that is not considered past livable space.

As I mentioned before this process is called retrofitting and this process is expensive. But there is a better way to do things. There is a process where you can build from the ground up to avoid the expensive costs of retrofitting. This process is called universal design. Universal design involves either sloped or level entrances which eliminate the need for steps and that extra barrier for someone with a disability. Doorways throughout the house are held to a standard to be wide enough for a wheelchair to get through. Countertops are raised so that wheelchairs can get under them. There will always be a first-floor bedroom so that you do not have to worry about climbing stairs. A bathroom will be equipped with a roll-in shower or a tub that can be removed that has the base ready for a roll-in shower if that is ever needed to be installed. Bathrooms are larger so that you can navigate around the bathroom in a wheelchair. Floor plans are open and they make it easy for a wheelchair to navigate around. Does this sound expensive to you? The fact is that universal design does not cost any more than regular construction of a traditional home.

One in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – has a disability that impacts major life activities, according to a report in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The most common disability type, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about 2 in 5 adults aged 65 and older.

So why is universal design so unfamiliar to the American people? Why are we not being proactive if 40% of the US population over 65 years old is going to live with some sort of mobility issue? With the current model, we are building homes without thinking about our futures or people with disabilities. We are thinking we are invincible like I once did and do not think that a physical disability is it real possibility for ourselves. Those odds are very high and more than likely you or someone in your household would benefit from universal design at one point in their lives. Nobody thinks that could be them and chances are you’re not thinking about saving or incorporating tens of thousands of dollars into your savings or retirement to retrofit a home once a disability is something you have to face head-on.

If we had more universally designed homes it would give people the peace of mind that if something were to happen to them one day their home would already be well equipped for them to live a productive life. Also, if we had more universally designed homes it would help someone like me not look down an entire street and see steps at the entrance of every home but rather neighbors that I could easily visit and socialize with the inside of their homes. In addition, it would make the housing market much more friendly for people with disabilities and give them opportunities to live somewhere where they can thrive.

When I went to buy my home there were no universally designed homes on the market. They are pretty much nonexistent around where I live in the Akron, Ohio area. So we had to settle for the next best thing in a ranch, but once again we had to go through the process of retrofitting. Luckily this time I had resources available to help with the costs of at least the bathroom. My dad was there once again to lend a helping hand to install yet another lift in the garage and a ramp off the back porch. I am blessed to have him in my life as well as the rest of my family.

The unfortunate situation is a lot of people with disabilities end up in nursing homes due to a lack of opportunities for housing and care as they age. We need to think about universe design and raise awareness about it. We need to think about our veterans, The elderly, and even able-bodied Americans because this benefits all of us. This is the opportunity to make our world a better place not just for ourselves and our futures, but for our friends and family with disabilities. Just try to imagine our country without barriers to entry. Think about those barriers I talked about at the beginning of this post. I dream of the day when all of those barriers disappear.

– written by Adam Helbling

To read more by Adam visit:


For more information about Adam’s story and his book Well… I Guess I’m Not Jesus visit:


One response to “I DREAM OF ALL AMERICAN HOMES BUILT THIS WAY – By Adam Helbling”

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