H Is for Home, Not Hassle

David Whalen went skiing in 1981. He was 19; there was an accident. He came home a C5-6 quadriplegic.

A native of the Schenectady area in Upstate New York, Whalen today is an attorney for the New York Office of Court Administration. He sails, makes music and loves ping pong. Until four years ago, Whalen lived in his house without any extensive modifications or mobility technology. With its walk-out basement, though, the house is essentially two-story. And the interior, with its standard, ranch-style layout and conventional door sizes, was difficult to navigate in his Quickie 626 power chair. To reach the basement with its spare bedroom, fireplace and ping pong table, he had to go outdoors and descend an earthen ramp to the basement’s entrance. The trip was impossible during northern New York state’s snowy winters. The rest of the year, it was merely dangerous.

Four years ago, Whalen undertook some big changes that made everyday life easier and turned his home into the haven it should be rather than the adversary it had become.

The supplier: Bruce Jackson, Barrier Free Systems, Scotia, New York. Like David Whalen, Jackson is a C5-C6 quadriplegic, the result of a 1971 high school wrestling accident. He founded Barrier Free Systems in 1985 and specializes in outfitting clients’ homes with mobility equipment, including adjustable-height counters, modular ramp systems, elevators, door openers, vertical and stair lifts and bathroom-accessibility modifications. Jackson’s staff of mechanics handles all the installations and follow-up service, and, if a client’s project needs electrical, carpentry or other kinds of skills that Jackson doesn’t have in house, he retains subcontractors and oversees all the work as a turnkey project. Most of his clients have spinal-cord injuries, although he also works with multiple sclerosis patients, stroke patients, seniors with routine geriatric ambulation deficits and the non-elderly who, for a variety of reasons, avoid stairs or need mobility assistance.

The challenge: David Whalen wanted to more easily navigate his home in his Quickie 626 power chair, as well as to have safe, easy access to his walk-out basement. Before the modifications, the basement was only accessible from the home’s rear entrance, making it inconvenient at best and risky at worst for Whalen to get there. He also needed an easier way to enter his house from the garage because it was difficult maneuvering the conventional door to get inside once he left his van and drove up the ramp to the door, which leads directly into his kitchen.

The equipment: Quickie 626 tilt-in-space power chair. Savaria V1504 vertical platform lift. Power Access 2300 door opener. Roll-around lift for transfers.

Space modifications: Interior walls between the kitchen, upstairs living area and the upstairs bedroom were removed without compromising the house’s load-bearing configuration. Wooden, roll-under task-space surfaces were installed in the kitchen, bedroom (which doubles as an office) and bathroom. The large, desk-like surfaces are wall-mounted, eliminating vertical obstructions underneath that could interfere with power-chair movement.

Construction: Three interior walls were removed, opening the entire upstairs space. The upstairs bedroom was doubled in size to accommodate a hospital bed and Whalen’s office. An access ramp was built to allow easier access to the house from the garage. The ramp is entirely contained within the garage, avoiding problems with snow and ice. Also built were a roll-in shower and a wheelchair-accessible bathroom sink.

The payoff: Now, Whalen can easily navigate throughout his house without worrying about tight corners and crowded passages. The house has a refreshingly open feeling with a lot of natural light. “When you’re in the bedroom you can actually look into the kitchen, it’s all open and wide. It’s kind of nice, actually,” he said.

The garage ramp makes getting into the house hassle-free: Whalen simply drops his van ramp directly onto the garage ramp and drives to the entrance, where more hassles are eliminated by the power door opener that Whalen operates with a remote he carries on his key ring.

With the vertical lift in place, Whalen can finally use the downstairs fireplace and even enjoy his ping-pong table and television. He’s also relieved to finally be able to easily access his home’s mechanical systems — the furnace, hot-water heater, and electrical panel. Whalen says that he’s considering how he may use the downstairs guest bedroom now that he can easily reach it anytime it wants.

He takes special pleasure in his wall-mounted work surfaces, especially the one in the kitchen. “It’s made a huge difference,” he said. “With the bench, you can eat with people, interact with them. It’s a lot nicer and safer. I don’t even use the kitchen table. I can hold a cookbook and drink wine and make sure whoever’s cooking is doing the spaghetti the right way. It’s just really enjoyable, sitting at the bench, looking out the window.”

Whalen says there are things he would like to change. For one thing, he would like to let in even more natural light. For another, the roll-in shower has to go. “I’ve had terrible trouble where the floor tile meets the plastic shower,” he said. “There’s no way to bond the two surfaces. It’s uneven where they meet, so the weight of my chair crushes it down, it breaks, then water seeps in. That was a real misstep.” He expects to completely re-work the shower soon.

Whalen loves his home, especially now that it’s much more accessible and so much more convenient to live in. “The home is one part of a puzzle,” he said, referring to the complexities and continuous problem-solving that is unavoidable for people with mobility disabilities. “Home isn’t the end-all, be-all. But, if it’s smartly built, things are a lot easier.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Mobility Management.

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