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Interview with Kate Bigalk

White middle age woman with short brown hair with black glasses. She is where a plain white tshirt. Background is wood panels

Every April, the Fair Housing Act is celebrated as the law that prevents discrimination in housing. The FHA amendment requires "barrier-free" accessible designs to be included in new building complexes that had four or more units. While the FHA amendment is a landmark civil rights law, it falls short in a lot of ways. Primarily the barrier-free accommodations requirement is not inclusive of all types of disabilities. Nor does the law address accessibility for single-family housing.

While the law has not addressed fully accessible design, other advocates have gone out on their own in creating accessible housing. One such individual who has spent her life on accessible design and aging-n-place is Kate Bigalk. I first came into contact with Ms. Bigalk when she announced she had published her second book: Aging In Place: Using Universal Design: Discover How to Create Your Future Accessible Home You Will Never Have To Leave.

As another full-time wheelchair user advocating for accessible housing, I congratulated her on the publication of her second book. She has also successfully designed three houses and sold them. What makes this even more intriguing is usually when accessible housing is undertaken, it is an able body person (non-disabled person) who helps design the home. An example is a parent making his or her home accessible for a disabled child. In Ms. Bigalk case, she helped her mom build a universally designed home. Later on, when her mom wanted to downsize, she helped her mom sell the home and redesign her mom's condo to age in place. Truly switching the paradigm of who is designing for whom! To learn more about the homes she designed for her mother, click here to read a local article about it, Whalen, Mary, "Aging in Place - Kate Bigalk's universal design project." Filmore County Journal, September 26, 2022.

Read below my interview with Ms. Bigalk.

photo of a sinlge microphone with news anchors in front of some steps blurred out.

How and where did you become knowledgeable about accessible home design?

I was born with my disability and have been using a manual and power wheelchair to maintain my independence all of my life. I have gained my knowledge of accessible design through “first-hand” life experiences.

What is the difference between Universal Design, Aging in Place, ADA, and a Forever Home?
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal U.S. law that protects the civil rights of an individual with a physical or hidden disability. This law guarantees equal opportunity to public accommodations, employment, transportation, state, and local government services, and telecommunications. The ADA Standards are specific accessible design requirements that only apply to housing that is funded by local, state, or federal governments.

  • Universal Design looks at how a building, product, or environment can be used or accessed by as many people as possible, regardless of age or ability. Universal Design is not governed by any law or regulation.

  • Aging in Place is when a person makes adjustments to their current home or builds a home that will address potential issues as they age.

  • Forever Home is a home you plan to live in for a long time, possibly for the rest of your life — you can see yourself living there forever.

What barriers have you faced when working with others unfamiliar with accessible home design?

I have advised people who have remodeled or were building their homes to include some aspect of accessibility. For example, having a ‘no-step’ entry from their garage into their home. I also suggested they have a bedroom downstairs, a bathroom that was big enough for a person in a wheelchair, and that they install a wheel-in-shower. Most people are happy with the advice.

Some people say that having an elevator in a home is like a hot tub, some people may want a hot tub, but others may say it is too much maintenance or cost. What is your opinion?

Elevators in homes are expensive and do require a lot of maintenance. A ramp is built into the landscaping to get into a home, and having the main living areas in a single area is a better choice. I always recommend a home's main level have a:

  • two-car attached garage;

  • storm shelter;

  • main bedroom suite;

  • laundry room;

  • kitchen; and

  • living spaces.

But if you have an elevator installed in your house, have it access the ‘secondary’ living spaces, like a basement or the upper level. That way, if the elevator is not working (electricity, solar panels, or backup generator not working), you still will not be stuck on one level without a bed or a bathroom.

What advice do you give others when choosing and working with architects and contractors?

Make sure that they have an overall knowledge of accessible, universal design…BUT ALWAYS ensure they listen to your needs, wants, and desires.

One level grey and white home with blue sky background

What interior design (i.e. decor, mid-century design, etc) blends well with Universal Design?

Any interior design choice (decor) will work with Universal Design. The main idea when thinking of Universal Design is the ease of use, access, and having enough space.

What is the re-appraisal value of a home that has some accessible features included?

The resale/re-appraisal value of an accessible home depends on several factors.

For a home located in a community where there is a relatively higher percentage of seniors or disabled people, accessibility modifications will possibly increase a home’s resale value. Such features are also increasingly appealing to the 35-to-55 age group. The opposite may be true in an area full of young families.

The degree of modifications, and the cost of reversing them, also play a role in the resale value of an accessible home. An example would be raising counters, stovetops, and sinks that have been lowered to accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair or walker.

Other changes may not be particularly costly to reverse. Lowered light switches, for example, can be raised fairly easily, and grab bars can be removed. These modifications, such as levered door and faucet handles and wider doorways, appeal to buyers of any age or situation.

What should most real estate listings include to help sell home accessibility?
Black and white blue print of a floor of a house

A full floor plan with room dimensions, a 3-D walkthrough, and many pictures of the exterior, the garage, the main bedroom, bathroom showers, kitchens, and the hallway.
Where do you think the accessible home design field might lead us in the future?

The future of ‘accessible’ home design is based on a balancing act between a few factors:

1. Affordability,

2. Aesthetics, and

3. Function.

Someone or some entity could build a beautiful, perfectly functional home that ‘ticks off’ all the boxes except affordability. Or a house that is affordable and cute, but has tiny bathrooms with toilets not next to a wall, and narrow hallways (not functional). Or worse, a home that is affordable and perfectly Universally Designed but is ugly and not in a safe neighborhood.

What advice might you give to future entrepreneurs who are disabled and want to be in the housing industry?
Go for it!!!! We NEED you!

Want more? Check out her two books; just click on the titles to learn more!

Ms. Bigalk, a middle age white woman with short brown hair and glasses. Where a white tshirt and holding her book titled Aging in Place.



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