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Assessing the Accessibility of America’s Housing Stock for Physically Disabled Persons

Front Cover of Accessibility of America’s Housing Stock: Analysis of the 2011 American Housing Survey (AHS)

Twenty-five years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act set the goal of “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” for individuals with disabilities. The availability of accessible housing plays a key role in furthering this goal, which has become increasingly important as the U.S. population ages. A recent study conducted by the Office of Policy Development and Research’s Multidisciplinary Research Team, “Accessibility of America’s Housing Stock: Analysis of the 2011 American Housing Survey,” examines the prevalence of features in the nation’s housing stock that make units accessible for people with physical disabilities.

An Accessibility Index

The study created an accessibility index derived from the 2011 American Housing Survey (AHS) to measure the availability of accessible features in housing for persons with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs or who use a mobility device for a condition that is not a temporary injury. Since 2011, the AHS has included specific questions about the presence of accessibility features in homes. These questions, combined with the existing core disability questions in the survey, provide researchers with an unprecedented look into the prevalence of accessibility features across the nation’s housing stock.

Based on the AHS data, the researchers created an Accessibility Index that classified housing units into three levels of accessibility:

Level 1: Potentially modifiable. Homes in this category have some essential accessibility features but would not be fully accessible without further modifications, including the following:

  • Stepless entry into the dwelling from the exterior.
  • A bathroom on the entry level or the presence of an elevator in the unit.
  • A bedroom on the entry level or the presence of an elevator in the unit.

Level 2: Livable for individuals with moderate mobility difficulties. Homes in this category have a minimum level of accessibility that allows a person with moderate mobility difficulties to live in the home. Level 2 homes include all the features of Level 1 homes as well as additional features, including the following:

  • No steps between rooms or rails/grab bars along all steps.
  • An accessible bathroom with grab bars.

Level 3: Wheelchair accessible. Homes in this category have a minimum level of accessibility sufficient for a wheelchair user to live in the home and prepare his or her own meals. This group includes all the features in levels 1 and 2, and additional features, including the following:

  • Extra-wide doors or hallways.
  • No steps between rooms.
  • Door handles instead of door knobs.
  • Sink handles or levers instead of knobs.
  • Wheelchair-accessible electrical switches, electrical outlets, and climate controls.
  • Wheelchair-accessible kitchen countertops, kitchen cabinets, and other kitchen features.

Findings and Conclusion

The results of the study suggest that the majority of U.S. homes are not fully accessible. Although approximately one-third of units have Level 1 accessibility features and are potentially modifiable, fewer than 5 percent of units have the features needed to accommodate a person with moderate mobility difficulties. The percentage of wheelchair-accessible units is even smaller; less than 1 percent of all units are equipped with features that would allow a wheelchair user to live independently. The researchers did note that some households might be misreporting features, which could result in underreporting some accessibility elements.

The study finds that the prevalence of accessibility features varies based on housing and resident characteristics. For example, households with housing costs below the area median are more likely to live in units with Level 2 and 3 accessibility features than are households with housing costs above the area median. Units in newer and large multifamily buildings are more likely to have Level 2 and 3 accessibility features than are units in smaller apartment buildings (those with 4 to 49 units), single-family homes, duplexes, or triplexes. Units located in the Northeast are less likely than units in the Midwest, South, and West to have Level 2 and 3 accessibility features. Units in the South and West are much more likely than units in the Midwest and Northeast to have Level 1 accessibility features.

Overall, the findings of the report suggest that the U.S. housing stock is not well equipped to accommodate people with disabilities — a need that is likely to become more acute as the number of older Americans who have both ambulatory limitations and a desire to age in place grows. The study notes that additional research is needed to understand how people with disabilities live in homes with limited accessibility features.

Along with identifying the prevalence of accessible housing, the report also includes recommendations for improving the accessibility questions included in the AHS. The researchers suggest that these questions should focus on a specific outcome, such as whether a home’s bedrooms and bathrooms are accessible with a wheelchair, rather than on specific accessibility features such as the width of a hallway or the presence of ramps. The researchers also suggest that including more detailed explanations of the questions and asking about other features (such as accessible laundry facilities, parking, and common areas in multifamily buildings) would strengthen the survey. Finally, the researchers note that the AHS has no questions that address features especially relevant to the needs of people with communication or mental impairments, such as flashing alarms and tactile cues.