Last fall, Jenny and Ryan Montgomery invited Darren Larson over for dinner at their home in the University neighborhood.

Larson, 31, and Heath Montgomery, 5, both use wheelchairs, they share the same type of cerebral palsy, and Larson is a mentor to his young friend – although he said the mentoring goes both ways. That evening, getting the mentors together for dinner took some doing.

The entrance to the Eddy Avenue home has steps. Larson thought the family had a ramp he could use, but they didn’t then, so his personal care assistant returned to his home to get his ramp with help from Ryan Montgomery while Larson, Jenny Montgomery, and Heath waited outside in the fall weather.

“We sat in the backyard with a golf umbrella with Heath, just huddling in the rain,” Jenny said.

When the ramp was set up, Larson was scared he wouldn’t be able to roll up the steep incline, but Heath cheered him on from the top of the stairs. “You can do it!”

“I survived, and then I got to come in and have a wonderful dinner,” Larson said.

The visit illustrates an initiative Larson has been working on for years.

Larson, the Montgomerys and Summit Independent Living Center want homes to be built so residents, both young and old, and guests with and without wheelchairs and walkers can get inside under their own power, move around without bumping into walls, and go to the bathroom without having to go back home.

“I like seeing historical homes, so for me, it’s not about trying to change the past,” Larson said. “It’s about trying to make the future. That’s what this is about.”

Jenny Montgomery agreed: “It’s really about the future. My eyes were opened a lot when I gained a family member with a physical disability, and I’m so grateful that I learned this.”

***

Last month, the Missoula City Council adopted a resolution that gives review priority to residential projects that voluntarily meet “visitability” standards, such as a “zero step entrance” into the home, door openings a minimum of 32 inches wide, and light switches a maximum of 48 inches above the floor.

Councilwoman Caitlin Copple sponsored the measure, and she said the council opted to create a friendly incentive to get the community accustomed to the idea.

“It wasn’t a concept that I was familiar with, which I’m guessing is the case for a lot of able-bodied folks around Missoula,” Copple said. “It really made a lot of sense to me, not only to be a good ally to our friends in the disability community, but also in light of the fact that Missoula has a rapidly aging population.”

Plus, she said, anyone at any time can become temporarily or permanently disabled because of an injury or illness. Larson and Montgomery approached her about the matter, and Copple said she wants to help spread the word to members of the building and real estate community.

She said the council might consider – down the road – strengthening the standards: “There is definitely interest in moving that direction.”

Justice Ender, of Summit, said state law would prevent a local requirement, and cities that have tried to force the issue in other states have experienced pushback. Nonetheless, he said fewer than 20 percent of homes in Montana have a “zero-step entrance,” and he wants to see that number increase – as well as the number of homes built with other “visitable” features.

“We’re kind of hoping that long-term, 80 percent of new homes or more (will) be visitable,” Ender said. “It’s kind of like vaccinations. Most people need to do it for them to work.”

Larson, too, is interested less in mandates than in changing societal norms.

“My hope is that in 10, 20 years, the norm becomes visitability,” Larson said.

In fact, the homes in the University District illustrate the way people lived when older neighborhoods were built in Missoula, Montgomery said. Then, people who had disabilities weren’t part of the community, and they were often placed in institutions.

“This neighborhood, which is so lovely and so traditional, was built 100 years ago, and it reflects the reality of people with disabilities 100 years ago,” Montgomery said.

The Montgomerys rent, and as Heath grows, the family will need to buy a home with a design that accommodates him – and will accommodate seniors and others, too – Jenny Montgomery said. Her parents are searching for a home to buy in Missoula, and she said they are finding possibilities that might work for their grandson in the Lewis and Clark neighborhood.

In Missoula, some of the accessible homes are the newer ones “on the margins” of town, she said. And Larson said some people have retrofitted traditional houses, but that route isn’t as affordable as starting out with “visitability” in mind.

“You can spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to make a bigger bathroom or widen the hallway or build a ramp onto your home,” Larson said. “It’s not fiscally responsible to retrofit.”

***

As baby boomers age, it will become more important for the community to have homes designed to be easily navigable, said Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services. According to the agency, in 2000, Missoula County counted some 8,800 people 65 years and older, and in 2010, that number went to 12,457, for a 29 percent increase; the jump in population of those 60 and older was 36 percent in the same time period.

“We’re ill-prepared for what’s happening,” Kohler said.

However, she credited Summit with driving a policy for the Missoula community, and she said it will benefit people who are less mobile as well as those who are active. An active person, for instance, might break a leg skiing, and it’s important to have a bathroom on a main floor in that case.

“It’s difficult to realize that we might end up with a disability someday,” Kohler said.

As far as Larson is concerned, the standards work wonders for people who end up with a big-screen television and cushy couch, too. He likes watching football and drinking beer, and a comfortable setup isn’t easy to move into most homes.

“It’s a whole lot easier to carry that couch and TV into a no-step entrance with a wider hallway,” Larson said.

Don Verrue, building superintendent for the city of Missoula, said no one has turned in any residential proposals yet with a “visitability checklist,” but he said some contractors in the area already use the standards. Once he receives such a proposal, it will be placed on the fast track for approval.

“If somebody comes in and meets the checklist, we expedite the review process,” Verrue said.

As the next generation grows up, Jenny Montgomery anticipates its members will be strong advocates for their needs as she watches the traits in her own son, a boy who is proud to be different.

“With pride comes power,” she said. “These kids are going to be demanding. They’re going to be demanding their inclusion.”


Criteria for expedited review

The city of Missoula will put residential proposals on the fast track for review if they meet these “visitability” standards:

– Zero-step entrance on an accessible route with path shown on drawing. 

– Accessible route door thresholds eliminated, ramped or beveled. 

– Door clear openings are minimum of 32 inches, with doors marked on plans. 

– Bathroom on main floor has unobstructed clear space of 30 by 48 inches. 

– Restroom on main floor has reinforcing/backing. 

- Wall electrical outlets mounted at least 15 inches above the floor.

- Light switches, thermostats and controls are a maximum of 48 inches above the floor.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Reporter for the Missoulian