Disability Advocates of Kent County Helps Families, Communities, and Organizations Design with Everyone in Mind
by Patrick Parkes, Business Development Coordinator
At Disability Advocates of Kent County, our staff has spent the last 42 years working alongside individuals with disabilities to improve access to their homes, communities, and employment opportunities across Kent, Ionia, Mecosta, Montcalm, and Osceola counties. The importance of designing with accessibility in mind within both the residential and commercial building sectors has only grown given disability’s potential to impact us all as a natural part of human diversity—whether from birth, permanent injuries, and/or natural aging through the lifespan. Specifically, 1 in 5 U.S. adults reports living with a disability of some kind. Furthermore, each day in the U.S., 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65—with the entire generation reaching retirement age by 2030. These demographic trends ensure that disability and accessibility needs will become even more prevalent going forward. Yet, less than 5% of the U.S. housing supply is currently accessible.
To help address this critical need for accessible housing, we opened the Wolters Home Accessibility Center in 2022 as part of our new office space within the Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports & Inclusion Center (160 68th St. SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49548). We designed this unique showroom space to allow families, designers, builders, and healthcare professionals to see possibilities related to building or modifying bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and other living spaces to maximize user independence and safety. In addition to hosting visitors for consultations and classes in the Home Accessibility Center, our Occupational Therapy team also offers in-home assessments, providing recommendations on adaptive equipment, existing home modifications, and/or new-build needs. In fact, the team performed 450 of these assessments in FY2023.
Apart from home accessibility, our accessibility consulting services in the commercial sector take a variety of forms to meet each client and project exactly where needed—whether a space in question is existing or being designed as a new project. Our thorough audits of existing spaces first provide recommendations for complying with minimum ADA standards in areas currently out of compliance. These audits then suggest opportunities to exceed compliance minimums with an eye toward desire, feasibility, and cost effectiveness in line with current or future planned upgrades.
In the case of new projects, involving our team as early as possible in plan reviews and design deliberations allows projects to benefit most from accessibility insights because these insights can be seamlessly woven into the projects’ proverbial fabrics at little to no added cost compared to potential renovations after the fact. One example might be making an embedded ramp a central feature of a space’s entrance so that all users enter equitably with maximum user-friendliness for all. Another example might be utilizing tactile flooring textures, water features, color schemes, and/or other decorative elements to facilitate wayfinding. These types of natural, multipurpose accessibility considerations show the power of not just meeting ADA compliance minimums—born out of a dated and imperfect legislative process—but instead embracing principles of Universal Design. First articulated by architect Ron Mace, these principles aim to produce “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
We are fortunate to have provided accessibility and Universal Design solutions for clients like Steelcase, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, John Ball Zoo, Calvin University, and many more. We are also honored to serve Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. as a multi-year consultant helping to bring increased accessibility to projects and events shaping downtown. With this in mind, we invite readers to reach out to us with any project needs. We are also eager to host new friends at our office spaces, Wolters Home Accessibility Center, or our annual Absolutely Accessible Kent workshop on inclusive architecture, design, and city planning. Join us in creating more accessible, inclusive, and prosperous built environments for all!