Designing For Disability

October 7, 2005
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SPARTA — For Mary Christopher, designing her new home is important to her health and well-being for reasons beyond the aesthetic. A victim of multiple sclerosis, the 46-year-old former secretary uses a walker for mobility. She has trouble standing on her own and often has difficulty gripping things with her left hand.

For Christopher, everyday life can produce a myriad of challenges, particularly as her illness progresses. Shag carpet can slow the workings of her walker's wheels, or later, her wheelchair. A light switch and door handles can present challenges, never mind a standing shower. Even cupboards and kitchen appliances can be everyday hassles, if the doors open in the wrong direction to maneuver around or are too high to reach.

Because there will likely be few home repairs she can accomplish on her own, she opted for a condo. Now, she faces the arduous task of retrofitting it to meet her needs.

Helping her along the way is Scott Anderle, president and owner of Specialized Home Design Inc. Working with designers and contractors, Anderle has guided the modification of Christopher's new condo, which should be complete in February.

A handful of the unique modifications necessary for Christopher's condition include a roll-in shower with two hoses, pushbutton lights, grab bars, frictionless flooring resistant to the wear of wheels, sliding doors without a track lip, and porches without steps. After that, every facet of design has to be measured for accessibility and ergonomics.

Special considerations of clearance become so intricate that it is reminiscent of designing a loading dock. For instance, how could a person in a wheelchair use an oven that opens downward?

Plus, with cases like Christopher, it also becomes necessary to modify the house for her future needs.

"Sometimes, it's like, 'I'm not there yet!'" she explained. "Right now, I only need handrails on one side going downstairs. But we're putting in two. I don't need grab bars (in the shower). But down the road, I might, and it will be a heck of a lot easier (to put them in now).

"It's his job to think ahead."

A physical therapist of 18 years, Anderle sold his chain of five West Michigan clinics in 2003, and began reinventing himself as a home modification specialist.

Over the next 18 months, he subjected himself to more than 7,000 hours of specialized study. He took courses as a contractor and built a network of specialized vendors, contractors and architects as well as legal, medical and insurance contacts. Only a handful of individuals outside of academia share that accumulated expertise, and Anderle is one of the first to apply it as a third-party consultant.

"There is such a need for this expertise," he said. "Everyone I talked to, they told me that what I was trying to do was unique, different and very needed."

Anderle's services range from home evaluation and consultation to full-scale coordination of design and construction. Using CAD (Computer-Aided Design), he can help architects amend designs for accessibility while the client waits. He maintains a database of hundreds of vendors from across the state — ranging from whirlpool and overhead track companies to bedroom designers — and can help seek out the best quality and price.

Through his services, he hopes to speed up a building process that has traditionally taken years.

Christopher's home is a combination of two aspects of Anderle's practice. Her home must both meet her current disability and remain accessible as she ages.

There are three segments involved in this emerging market, all of which are rapidly growing.

Medical advances have exponentially increased the likelihood of surviving a catastrophic injury, according to Sister Kathryn Mullarkey, director of technology for Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, one of the vendors working with Anderle. Similar advances have created a large segment of people aging into disability.

The first issue is individuals who have suffered a catastrophic injury or a life-changing illness. These cases are as diverse as the medical conditions and personal situations of the afflicted. Even with the same injury, a married man with children will have much different concerns than a single woman, for instance.

Plus, many patients expect to maintain their work and lifestyle despite the injury.

"We're getting more people who are really tech savvy and challenge us to put the pieces together for them," Mullarkey said.

She recalled one patient with Lou Gehrig's Disease who wanted remote e-mail and Internet access.

Anderle is working with Mary Free Bed on behalf of a quadriplegic client to create a "smart home." All the functions of the house will be automated through either voice commands or a puffer tube control system.

"The sky is the limit," Mullarkey said. "It all depends on funding sources of the person and what the technology can provide."

Most times, funding is provided through insurance companies. These situations are especially difficult and are highly litigated. For this reason, Anderle will not accept premiums for suggesting certain products, or a commission of any sort.

"I don't want to have to explain something like that in court some day," Anderle said. "I need to stay clean as snow. I need to establish trust with everyone involved."

A second segment of the market is clients who are not dealing with a sudden change but rather develop a disability as they age. These cases seldom involve insurance money, and out-of-pocket costs become a major concern. With these cases, Anderle may have to help the client determine what modifications not to do.

Anderle cited a family from out-of-state considering a move to West Michigan. They are interested in the costs and difficulties of modifying or building a home to accommodate a wheelchair-bound child.

Then there is the third type of client: Those with no disability at all.

"There is a growing acceptance of universal design," he said. "People want to have a home they can live in their entire life."

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, there is a growing market for whole or partial home modifications in preparation for future disabilities. Also, Anderle said, builders are beginning to recognize that nearly everyone will have at least some period of life when they are not fully mobile.

These design concepts are a primary feature in five house condos being built by Custom Development LLC in Sparta. Anderle is a partner in the venture with contractor Rick Dunneback.     

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