Right now, there are hundreds of people in Montana who cannot go home.

They cannot go home because there are no available homes in Montana that they can use. These Montanans have mobility disabilities, whether temporary or permanent, and cannot live in or even visit homes that lack basic accessibility features.

And less than 20 percent of homes in Montana have even one accessible (zero-step) entrance.

Many of these Montanans cannot buy homes and retrofit them - retrofitting an inaccessible home is often prohibitively expensive, and in homes with certain designs, physically impossible. Because of the lack of accessible homes and apartments, the wait for the few places that are usable can be many years.

This situation leads to people not being able to move for jobs or other opportunities. Instead, many people remain trapped in their current location - regardless of whether their current housing is safe or even allows them the freedom to leave and return at will.

A lack of accessibility awareness also forces people to leave their homes years before they otherwise would have to.

People, regardless of age, can be forced into nursing homes when their current housing is no longer safe or does not allow them to move about freely because of steps, whether they are outside or between rooms/floors, or some other barrier that limits their ability to live as independently as possible.

There are Medicaid waiver services that can assist individuals who want to move out of nursing homes and into the community, or simply remain living in the community, with the cost of installing accessibility features in their homes. However, the waiting list for these services is more than 450 people long. Even with waiver services, though, the lack of usable housing can mean people are stuck in an institution - unable to work or be part of the community. It's been shown that those who live in the community have safer and better lives. It also costs vastly less to allow people to live in their own homes. Yet Montana's taxpayers spend nearly $350 million a year for long-term care (www.statehealthfacts.org), much of which goes to nursing homes for people who would be safer and more productive living in their own homes. These people are Montanans, who - like you - want to have lives of independence and be as self-supportive as possible.

You can do something about this. You can build homes that meet three basic access standards, with one zero-step entrance, doors with 32 to 36 inches of clear passage space and one bathroom on the main floor with maneuvering space for a wheelchair. This basic accessible design concept is known as "visitability" and not only can it allow individuals to age in place and help people remain living in the community as opposed to a nursing home, it can also allow for friends and/or family members with mobility limitations to lead more socially active lives by allowing them the opportunity to be able to visit their own friends and family.

Putting these things in place on a new home is cheap, and usually costs less than upgrading a countertop or installing a fancy shower spout. But these changes make a huge difference in people's lives. For very little upfront cost, you can make a home that saves you money in the long run. But more importantly, you are making a home that your relatives and friends with mobility disabilities can visit. You are building a place where someone with a wheelchair or walker or cane, whether that is you or the house's next resident, could live. And you are crafting a home that you can grow old in, without being fearful of being forced into an institution just because of a natural decrease in mobility.

You and your fellow Montanans deserve to have independence and the chance to contribute to your communities. Independence is something we Montanans hold near and dear. Having a disability shouldn't mean you are no longer allowed to be a Montanan.

Justyn Field is the communications/media relations specialist for Summit Independent Living Center in Missoula.

 

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