Designing Your Accessible Home Around Your Disability with Dr. Rosemarie Rossetti
Editor’s Note: Dr. Rosemarie Rossetti of Columbus, Ohio, is president of Rossetti Enterprises, Inc., a speaking, writing and consulting company. A freak accident changed Dr. Rossetti’s life and made her keenly aware of the value of home designs. Over a 10-year period, she worked with colleges, manufacturers and home builders to design more functional homes for people, including those who use wheelchairs, older individuals or those with some type of disability. Today, she and her husband, Mark Leder, live in their national demonstration home, which is a Universal Design Living Laboratory that features accessibility, sustainability, advanced technology and green building methods. Wheel:Life interviewed Dr. Rossetti to share her best practices to help better your own accessible home.
A Freak of Nature Changed Dr. Rossetti’s Perspective
Seventeen years ago, I was hit by a tree and instantly paralyzed. When I came home from the hospital, I was totally frustrated with my house and realized my husband, Mark, and I needed a home that would better accommodate my mobility concerns. As I learned about universal design, I investigated the possibilities of building a home to meet our needs.
The accident happened when my husband and I were riding our bicycles to celebrate our wedding anniversary on June 13, 1998, in perfect weather on a public trail. My husband heard what he thought was a gun shot, but actually an 80-foot tree had snapped and fallen. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that tree crashed and knocked me unconscious. I never saw or heard the tree that came from behind me and off to the right. My husband Mark tried to warn me, but then jumped off his bike and got away, or he also would have been hit by the falling tree too.
The 7,000-pound tree pinned me to the ground. Mark, who didn’t have a cell phone, screamed for help. A woman who lived near the trail heard Mark’s screams and called 911. Another man and woman riding the trail heard him, and they helped Mark get the tree off me. When the tree fell, it pulled down power lines into a trail side swamp, creating an electrocution hazard and a large white fireball. My feet were in bike shoes with clamps on their bottoms and had remained clamped onto the bike pedals. My crushed bike helmet was still on my head. The lady who stopped to help, Dr. Jill McGowan, was a doctor in residence and a spinal cord injury specialist. As fortune would have it, she knew exactly what to do to get me out from under the tree without further injury to my spine.
When I woke up on the bike path, I saw Mark and asked, “What happened?” He told me, “A tree fell on you.” All I could say was, “Why, why, why?”
A volunteer fire fighter heard what was happening on her radio and learned that the first responders couldn’t get an ambulance down the bike trail. She drove her Ford Explorer on the narrow bike trail to where I was laying. Once they got me on the back board with a neck brace, they drove me to a nearby soccer field where a Life Flight helicopter picked me up and flew me to the Grant Medical Center in downtown Columbus.
After 4-1/2 hours of surgery, I learned that metal rods had been put in my broken back to stabilize it. I was paralyzed from the waist down, and I had only limited use of my hands at first. I couldn’t hold a fork to feed myself or a pen to write with, but a couple of weeks later I did regain use of my hands. Although I also had a broken neck, the decision was made not to operate on my neck, but rather to leave me in a neck brace for some time. After spending five days in intensive care, I was transported to Ohio State University for five weeks of inpatient rehab. I went to outpatient therapy for two more years, three days per week.
How the Laboratory Home Was Born
Once I got home, my house intensified my disability. Work spaces were too high, doors were too narrow, the carpeting was too thick, and I didn’t have any privacy. Some of the doors had to be removed, because my wheelchair wouldn’t go through them. The bathroom was so small I never could have any privacy, because the wheelchair was sticking out of the room.
“Work spaces were too high, doors were too narrow, the carpeting was too thick, and I didn’t have any privacy.”
I read an article in a magazine about universal design homes, and then I set out on a journey to build a home to meet my needs. Mark and I researched everything written on universal design, went to the International Builders Show and attended about every seminar taught on universal design.
We also met with Mary Jo Peterson, who was to design the bathroom and the kitchen for our future new home. So, that began a 10-year journey to build our Green Universal Design Living Laboratory home.
Today, our home is a national demonstration home and garden where people come and learn about universal design homes. We have tours by appointment, and we have a virtual tour on our website thanks to Google.
Since our entire house has been Google-mapped inside and out, you can take a tour of our home on our website at www.udll.com. We had called Google and asked the company to create a virtual tour inside and outside our home to help other people learn how to build universal design homes. Google executives told us, “This is a very worthy project. We would like to let the entire world see how to build these type of homes.”
A local Google photographer donated his time, taking more than 700 panoramic photos over several days. The photographer returned to his studio, put the photos together and created the virtual tour. Now people can learn what products and services are available to modify their homes to fit them better.
From your computer, you can zoom into every portion of the house. You can look at the ceiling, the floor, and items on each wall. We came up with this idea for the virtual tour after reading an article in our local newspaper about this photographer, who had created virtual tours for restaurants in our town.
We put together a huge team of 217 subcontractors, companies, individuals and corporations that contributed products and their interior designers and who specialized in building universal design homes and furnishing them, including the architect Patrick Manley; our interior design team lead by Mary Jo Peterson, who designed the kitchen and the bath; Anna Lyon, the overall interior designer; and Ardra Zinkon, our lighting designer. Our webpage (www.udll.com) has a section that lists the contributors.
What Is a Green Universal Design Living Laboratory House
Our house was not only built with universal design as its theme but also built to be a green sustainable home. We define green as using products that are energy efficient and possibly made with recycled materials.
A green home conserves resources and tries to protect the environment too. Green products bring about a healthy environment through water and air systems.
The term universal design relates to homes that are built that will be comfortable and efficient for all people of all ages and with all abilities and disabilities – not just people with disabilities.
“The features in our house have been designed to make life easier for everyone.”
For instance, a universal design home has no steps at the entrance. Someone in a wheelchair or pushing a baby stroller can go inside from any of the entrances to the home. Everyone likes a home with no steps and doors that are a little larger than the standard doors in a home. A curbless shower provides easy access for anyone of any age.
The kitchen is where many features of a universal home are displayed, including countertops of multiple heights. Most kitchen countertops are about 36 inches from the floor. Around the sinks and the cook tops, we’ve lowered them by 2 inches.
In the center island, we’ve made three different types of countertops – one 40 inches tall, one 35 inches and another 30 inches. The 30 inch countertop is the right height for someone in a wheelchair or for someone to sit down and eat. The 40-inch countertop is for taller people like my husband, who is 6 feet, 4 inches. The 35-inch high countertop serves people in the average height range.
Even if you’re just starting your family, you’ll have countertops suitable for everyone to sit at and eat from Granddad to the 3-year-old.
Building this house and this universal living laboratory wasn’t like instant pudding. We started in 2004 by hiring an architect. In 2006, we bought the property for the house and in the fall of 2009 broke ground. Thirty-two months later in May of 2012 we moved. Finishing the landscaping and the basement required another 2 years for a total of 10 years.
This house is the first Mark and I ever have built. We aren’t builders, but we took this project on as the general contractors, hired all the subcontractors and bought all the materials that needed to be purchased.
We were a team who worked with all the sponsors and contributors to the house. We gave our contributors and our sponsors an opportunity to understand how the house would be used. We shared the designs, the renderings and the photos with our contributors.
We explained that we were designing and building a home for the future that would accommodate more people, especially those with disabilities. We also explained how Baby Boomers and other seniors could appreciate and want to live in homes like the one we were designing. We showed them the huge market potential and shared that we had selected their product to be a part of our project, because we felt their products and services would best suit the type of home we were building. We also told them we would help market their products used in our home.
Many of these companies do social media promotions, have made YouTube videos in our home (go to YouTube, and type in Universal Design Living Laboratory) and some of them have blogged about the features in our home. Pictures of the installation of products in our home are on our website. Sometimes, my husband videoed the installation of products and sent the company the video free-of-charge.
There’s a link on our webpage (www.udll.com) to hundreds of photos showing the building process from beginning to end; videos our local TV station made about our home; and a video of The Ohio State University students who helped us. One of the interesting videos you’ll enjoy is the one-day installation of a waterfall in our yard that’s also a rain-gathering water system.
On our website, in the header “Media Room” under the sub-heading “Recent News Coverage” there are over 100 articles written about this house, including how to design a kitchen, a great room, a bathroom and a laundry room, and how to get grants from the Veterans Administration to help with construction. Also, other articles will tell you how to convert different rooms in your home to make them fit your needs and wants.
Here are 20 Universal Design features Dr. Rosemarie Rossetti has identified for better home accessibility.
- No step entrances with thresholds between 1/4 – 1/2 inch
- 1:20 slope leading to the entrances
- One 30” countertop section or a 30 inch high built in desk in the kitchen
- Side hinged oven and microwave mounted under the counter
- Knee space under the cooktop
- Side by side refrigerator
- 36” wide interior and exterior doors
- Grab bars at the side of every toilet
- Toilet height 17-18 inches from the floor to the toilet seat
- Grab bars in the shower
- Curbless shower
- Hand-held adjustable height shower nozzle
- Shower chair or bench
- Knee space under the sinks in the bathrooms and kitchen
- Front loading washer and dryer on pedestal drawers
- Casement windows with locks reachable from a seated position
- 50% of the storage space reachable from a seated position
- Closet rods reachable from a seated position
- Pocket doors with easy glide hardware and easy to grip handles
- Elevator or stair lift, if there are multiple stories in the home
Copyright © 2015 by Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D. – shared with permission
More Fundraising Help from Wheel:Life
In this book, you’ll review 10 brainstorming ideas for different types of fundraiser events to benefit an individual with a disability who needs assistance for medical equipment, physical rehabilitation, adaptive sports equipment or daily medical needs.
Throughout the book, author Lisa Wells shares real-life examples and success stories from her interactions with disability advocates, non-profit supporters and Wheel:Life members throughout a healthcare marketing career that spans more than 20 years on three continents.
10 Fundraising Ideas to Help People with Disabilities features interviews from:
• Paralympian Bert Burns on how he raised support to begin his career in wheelchair racing
• Project Walk Atlanta participant Leslie Ostrander on how she raised money for additional rehab
• The founders of 100 Songs for Kids on their annual music event to benefit children’s medical charities
• Rolling Inspiration creator Chris Salas on how he lined up sponsors for his SCI peer support group
and power soccer team
• The creators of Hunter’s Torch Daylily Garden, a fundraising resource for a child with special needs.
• The Independence Fund – a little known source of financial support for disabled US veterans.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.