The 2021 WalletHub ranking of U.S. cities best — and worst— places for people with disabilities ranks Grand Rapids as 33rd. That may seem like a good rating until the numbers are broken down. The rating process is open ended, assigning points to three main categories. While Grand Rapids scored an admirable 100 points for health care systems and an OK score of 68 for economy, quality of life for people living with disabilities dropped to a dismal 27. Quality of life encompasses the ability to go to events, shop at the mall or take a walk to the neighborhood park without encountering frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, obstacles.
Quality of life can also encompass the ease of completing daily tasks of living within one’s own home. How easy or hard is it to use the toilet or take a shower? Is it possible to prepare and cook meals? Are folks even able to get in and out of the house? Disability Advocates of Kent County helps people with disabilities to address these obstacles to quality of life. And the nonprofit’s planned move to its new Grand Rapids headquarters at 160 68th Street SW will include a new resource: The Home Accessibility Center. This showroom will give people living with disabilities the opportunity to explore ways to renovate and retrofit their homes to overcome these obstacles.
“The biggest objective is to give people an image of what’s possible. … People don’t know the possibilities,” says David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC). “It can be as simple as making showering easier, taking care of dinner clean-up, or folks with hearing impairments not hearing the TV unless they crank the volume up to 10 and annoy their families. The possibilities run the gamut depending on the person.”
The first such facility in West Michigan, The Home Accessibility Center is being developed by occupational therapists and will serve as a hands-on test space where people living with disabilities, their families, health care providers, design professionals and building contractors can look at examples of room layouts and adaptive equipment.
“It’s going to be a space where [people living with disabilities] can check out the possibilities, as many options as possible, so people can say ‘I like that. That might be good for me’ or ‘I find it annoying,’” Bulkowski says. “We will show many ways of doing things and provide tangible opportunities to try things out.”
Bulkowski notes that trying out adaptive solutions hands-on is a better approach than choosing them online. However, The Home Accessibility Center will also share digital resources such as videos and web links to showcase the range of possibilities out there. Perhaps the most important resource that will be offered is the decades of wisdom that the DAKC staff has to share. Over the years, the nonprofit has helped area residents make their homes more accessible with retrofitted bathrooms, ramps, lifts and other adaptive strategies.
“We helped a family build a ramp. Before the ramp, it took the 70-year-old daughter an hour and a half to get her mom, who was 90, out to the car to get her to a doctor’s appointment. When her mom went out on the ramp the first time, the daughter called and told us ‘We have a new life now,’” Bulkowski says. “There's also that hassle of having to ask for help for everything. It impacts people’s emotional and psychological health. We just helped somebody to take a shower in their own home for the first time in two years. These are things the rest of us take for granted.”
Launched earlier this year, the Building Opportunities, Creating Independence campaign has raised more than $1.75 million for the new 8,600 SF headquarters. Move-in is anticipated in April 2022. DAKC has allocated 40% of its construction budget on engaging with local minority-owned contractors. Disability Advocates will be one of nine disability organizations occupying the former South Christian High School, which is currently being transformed into the largest Special Olympics training and inclusion center in the world.
Photos courtesy of Disability Advocates of Kent County