ADA-compliant residences can change lives for Oklahomans with disabilities

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Norman Transcript |  By Joy Hampton | Senior Staff Writer

Featured on October 7, 2017
Linda Shannon strokes her cat, Smokie, at their new, more accessible apartment.

Linda Shannon strokes her cat, Smokie, at their new, more accessible apartment.

When Linda Shannon ran away with her true love 40 years ago, she dreamed of having a home and doing the kinds of things normal people do, like cooking dinner and washing dishes.

Shannon has cerebral palsy due to an injury resulting from physical abuse in early childhood. Both she and husband, Don, lived in an institutional setting due to disabilities.

“When you’re in love, nothing’s going to stop you,” she said.

However, finding love turned out to be easier than finding accessible housing. For Shannon, just turning on the water faucet or having privacy in the bathroom seemed like an impossible dream.

Shannon moved to Norman in 1994 and took a job at Couch Cafeteria working for the University of Oklahoma.

“The apartments I used to have were not handicap accessible,” Shannon said. “I couldn’t get into the bathroom at all. People don’t realize when you’re disabled, you want to do things other people do. When you can do those things, you feel normal.”

Now, for the first time in her life, Shannon can turn on the faucet in her kitchen sink. She has access to basic appliances, closets and bathrooms in her new home at Cottonwood Ridge Condos, 401 12th Ave. SE.

“This apartment was something I always wanted but didn’t think I would ever have,” Shannon said. “It was a dream come true for me.”

Shannon’s apartment looks much like anyone’s dream home. There’s a generous fireplace of white brick with a surround big enough for seating guests. The vinyl flooring looks like dark hardwood but is easy care and durable, and the spacious interior has room for her plush pink sofa.

It’s the extra touches that make the difference in Shannon’s quality of life. The open rooms are a must for her to navigate in her electric wheelchair, and the doorways are at least 36 inches wide. Her front door is operated by remote control and has zero threshold entry with no steps.

Many ADA modifications, like lever door handles and soft-touch light switches, are features that anyone could have in any home.

“Now I can get in the shower chair and take my own bath,” she said.“I wash dishes and dry them, and I can put things away that’s on the bottom shelf. I can hang up my clothes in the closet.”

A work station below the TV in Shannon’s living room has a countertop set at the right height for her wheelchair, allowing her to control the TV and several devices.

“It has helped me because I can answer the phone and write,” she said. “I can even draw over there.”

Not that she needs to draw in the living room. The spare bedroom has been converted into an art room where she routinely draws and paints.

Shannon’s kitchen is open and big enough for her to turn around. The faucet was moved to the front of the sink with a pull-down handle so she can wash dishes or get herself a glass of water.

The full bathroom has a zero-threshold shower with a hand wand and a height adjustable shower head.

“I can turn around without bumping into something,” Shannon said.

In the bedroom, an overhead track system provides a lift to help her move from wheelchair to bed.

“Where we could, we installed pocket door,” said Thomas Sharp, majority owner at Cottonwood and the force behind the renovation project. “A door swinging, for a person with a wheelchair, is more difficult.”

Shannon said Sharp has been patient and helpful.

“I don’t think too many people would take the effort that he took,” she said. “We need more landlords like him.”

Before embarking on accessible housing, Sharp developed a relationship with nearby Thunderbird Clubhouse and learned that stable housing is key to mental health recovery.

“When I realized that housing can be a deciding factor in stabilizing people’s lives, it changed my business model,” Sharp said. “Housing can be used for just more than a business opportunity.”

With social responsibility in mind, Sharp helped Cottonwood become a haven for those who most need housing.

“We estimate that today, we have over 50 mental health needs consumers living in our community,” Sharp said. “We house the majority of the Thunderbird Clubhouse members.”

One of those clients asked Sharp why he wasn’t helping people with physical needs, bringing another need to light.

“At that same time, we had an aging homeowner here facing accessibility issues,” Sharp said. “We reached out to the city of Norman rehabilitation specialist’s office and discovered there are different types of programs that assist persons to modify their dwellings.”

Sharp learned he also should bring Progressive Independence into the loop.

Rick Lewis with Progressive Independence works to help people like Shannon find accessible housing, but it’s challenging.

“We have a list that’s supposed to be updated yearly with every apartment complex in central Oklahoma,” Lewis said. “The problem we have is they call it accessible, and it’s not. They might have a grab bar in the bathroom and call it accessible, but it’s not accessible if the person can’t even get through the bathroom door.”

People with disabilities often work part-time or in low-paying jobs, if they can find a job at all, so they often need help with rent. Lewis has found that many times where a housing unit is truly accessible, it is “out of the price range for most assistance programs,” he said.

Sharp and Lewis connected about two years ago and the dialogue started. Eventually, Cottonwood remodeled seven units to be ADA accessible: five full rehabilitations and two partial modifications.

“In the first project, we learned the hurdles for the mechanical and the electrical, and we used that as a building block,” Sharp said. “We also did a site assessment with Progressive Independence and Metro Fair Housing [Council of Oklahoma] to determine what we needed to do as a complex.”

That included parking and accessible infrastructure such as ramps, striping, asphalt and cement handrails. Cottonwood is also working to eliminate trip and fall hazards throughout the complex.

Statewide, about 18,518 people need accessible housing, according to oklahomahousingneeds.org. In its 2016 annual report, Oklahoma Health Care estimated that only 192 people with disabilities received home modifications statewide under the Advantage Waiver program.  

“Average expenses for those home mods were around $2,000, which will only cover the cost of a simple grab bar or threshold ramp,” Progressive Independence Executive Director Jeff Hughes said. “A person with a physical disability who receives services under Sooner Care receives zero home modifications. It is not an allowable service.” 

To make matters worse, some modifications don’t pass the test of being usable. To solve that problem, Hughes wants Oklahoma to create uniform standards for accessibility similar to those in Texas and California.  

“Linda Shannon’s apartment is a good example of what can be accomplished with providing a builder with the proper tools and education with respect to accessibility,” Hughes said. “A large number of well meaning people and programs through Medicaid over the years tried to retrofit certain aspects of her [previous] apartment, but because of its design, it never really was usable to her.”

Locally, Sharp has learned the value of partnerships and grants.

“It’s a team approach,” Sharp said. “It’s time intensive, it’s code intensive, and it costs.

“It’s not for the weak of heart, but the rewards are worth it.”

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