This month is the 31st anniversary of the passing of the original Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th. Despite the ADA literally creating freedom, it has very little impact on disability housing because most of our housing is developed through private non-governmental finances, which is outside of the scope of this law. But an interesting side effect from the COVID pandemic might change that in a small way.
The COVID pandemic that started in 2020 and continues today has affected our economy and housing in many ways. In fact, it's a national crisis never seen before. In the United States and other countries, environmental crises have always been finite; meaning it occurs in a short time period. There was no guessing on the end date and a plan was quickly created to be completed in a certain and foreseeable timeframe. Other crises like World Wars, the economy was impacted through the need for reallocating resources and even rationing them to some degree. The United States has always been fortunate enough in our wars to avoid mass bombings of cities and towns. Causing a need to rebuild homes like our European countries. But for Americans in these wars, certain business in both private and military orientated actually profited from it. If you don’t believe me, watch the history channel show “The food that made America” and you will see that food entrepreneurs got a much needed boost.
The COVID pandemic is a unique national crisis because “how we do business” was turned on its head. The very foundation of face to face customer interactions could no longer occur. The issue became not one of reallocating resources to keep our soldiers safe abroad; it was how do we do business while keeping our workers safe. It was also a unique environmental problem; an unseen virus. With no known natural immunity out there and how quickly it spread, there was no way of knowing how long the environmental crisis would be.
The original notice in March of 2020 advised citizens to accumulate a two week food supply to stay at home. Just that short time period caused a shortage of food. But after the two weeks had passed and sadly the bodies piled up, what was two weeks, became another two weeks, then became an unofficial national shelter in place in your own home. The only businesses that survived were the ones that either allowed employees to work from home, or were able to safely deliver services to customers' homes. Can we say hello UberEats?
Now people’s homes became their shelter in place, their entertainment center, a full time kitchen, school house, and most importantly where they worked. Every working individual from home needed to ensure they had a working home office. For the disable working class, this could mean more than finding a room in your home from family members to claim your own office. An office, wherever it is, needs to be accessible for individuals with mobility impairments and other disabilities.
One of the biggest freedom provided by the ADA is the right of employment free from discrimination. Discrimination includes failure to hire/promote and failure to provide an accommodation to allow a disable worker to do the essential functions of his or her employment. Accommodation process is entirely tailored to each person’s disability and employment. I recommend for more information about the accommodation process, seek legal advice. Disable workers, whether they did or not in 2020, could request that their employer provide an accessible home office.
What is an accessible home office? It may surprise many that the law doesn’t specifically defy what an accessible home office is. Instead the ADA Guidelines only discusses some of the things normally found in an accessible home office regardless where the fixtures are located; a countertop, lighting etc. The measurements provided are based on the averages for a person who may be using a wheelchair or other disabilities needed accessibility. For example, the ADA Guidelines require countertops be no higher than 36 inches. Meaning it could be lower but not higher. This can create a problem if the countertop or desk you need in your home office must be higher to accommodate your own disability. An employer should review the Department of Justice Checklist as the first step but not as the required standard for an employment accommodation. As I discussed in my book, “My Blue Front Door,” if you are working with home improvement contractors versed in accessible modifications, unless you tell them your dimensions and specific needs, the modifications are based on ADA Guidelines. It’s not ill intended on the home improvement contractor or your employer; they simply are not the expert on your needs. You are.
Knowing thyself is really important and what you will need in the home office is essential. Ask yourself this (even if it may seem obvious):
What restrictions might you have depending on the location of your home office?
Would having your home office upstairs be a daily drag or impossibility?
Are you sharing your home office space with anyone else?
Are you going to be standing or sitting the entire time you are working in your office?
What kind of investment do you want to make in your home office?
Your home may not have been built with an extra room that you can turn into a home office. Or if it did, it may be on the top level of the house that just isn’t very accessible to you on a daily basis. While interest rates at a historic low helped cause the sale of homes to sky rocket, so has home improvement and construction. Many regardless of disability, found that the one room they used occasionally to get office work done no longer was practical for every week. Or maybe it was but that was when it was just one adult home at a time. Now the entire family has some kind of use for that office. According to Home Adivsors.com, the average cost of creating a room for the office and to fully furnace it with furniture and electrical wiring, is $15K!
Don’t worry, I am not advising you that having an accessible home office should cost you $15K. But you will have to invest some money even if your employer provides you with some of the furniture as an accommodation. (Be mindful if your employer bought you an accessible desk, it is not yours!) For example, you might need a paint job. Why? Well to make it look nice, duh! In my opinion, one of the obstacles to overcoming the stigma that an accessible house or a home with modifications devalues the home is the fact well...it can. But not strictly because of the modifications. It is because the modification doesn’t look nice. In fact, it is not uncommon to have a modification stick out like a sore thumb. Trust me I get it. When you can’t get into the house because of three steps, you fundamentally don’t care that the ramp might be made out of different wood or not painted to match the outside of your home. You just want in. However, other than the location and cost of the home, the next thing people notice when shopping for a home is...does it look nice! Then home buyers start to peel back the onion to see how many rooms there are and what is included in the kitchen. Remember, you need to keep the value of your home up even if you don’t intend to sell it. Your equity can be a financial safety net! If you want help with thinking creatively on the location of your home office while making it look nice, check out my favorite disable interior design blogger Wheel Chic Home. For example she talks about how to use any nook of the house, even under a stairway, to create a home office.
What you include in your accessible home office is entirely up to you. Here is a list that I feel are essential with description how to make it accessible:
Computer stand or Monitor arm
The kind of desk you should get depends on how you answered question two. If you will not be standing because you will be using a wheelchair, you want a desk that you can easily wheel under. The height depends on your wheelchair. Two unique attributes being a wheelchair user you need to consider is the depth of your desk and the shelving attached. Having the desk no more than three feet deep will prevent you from having to lean over your desk and stretch to obtain objects that may be out of your reach. This may limit how big your desk is unless you get one that meets your requirement but in an ‘L’ shape to compensate for more accessible counter space. The shelving and a possible keyboard holder under the desk may reduce the space your wheelchair can wheel around. Having a wireless keyboard would allow you to place the keyboard anywhere you like and eliminate the need for a keyboard holder. Buying under a desk cabinet with wheels , often called a mobile file cabinet or an Ottaman with storage, to have shelving that you can easily move out of the way or not damage if you hit it with your wheelchair because it will move.
If you intend on standing up for at least part of the time, then you should be looking into purchasing a standing desk. There are two kinds of standing desks. One desk is where the entire desk moves because it is electrical. The other is called a standing desk converter that sits on top of a desk. You will have to lift up the standing desk. Unless you have limited arm strength, I recommend obtaining the standing desk converter because it is always portable.
Lighting is very important. I recommend a lamp that is touch based to assist easily turning it on or in the office. It's just also quicker too. Extra points if you find one with an USB port since we live in an electronic world. If you happen to get a desk that is very deep, having a desk lamp that is wifi is important if you find yourself not being able to reach the lamp.
Similarly to a desk, whether you need a chair depends what kind of mobility impairment you have. Since I personally use a wheelchair all the time, my familiarity is limited to office chairs. Generally speaking, getting a chair that is ergonomically designed is a good starting point. Having a chair that is one wheel is helpful but make sure you can lock it to help getting in and out of it.
Having a computer stand and monitor arm are recommended because both provide you more desk counter space if you are using a laptop and have an external monitor screen. Trust me once you have both, you wished you had it all the time.
Shelving is important for all of your office supplies and desk reference books that you may not be able to store in the under desk cabinet. I recommend using floating shelves so you can mount at the right height on the wall and as many as you want. A lot of the bookcases and filing cabinets will be too tall to get the full use of them. I have bought shorter ones but that means half the shelves are available. Floating shelving is really the best of both worlds if you have access to a good wall.
Flooring is important for a variety of reasons. The reality is that your flooring that came with your house is what you have to deal with. I do not recommend using a rug to try and compensate for the flooring you may have if desired. Rugs are only good if you are not in a wheelchair.
Where do I get these furnishings for your office?