Matthew Gill was 19 years old when he hit his heading diving into the Rock River in Wisconsin. Matthew, now 25, suffered a spinal-cord injury that put him in a wheelchair for life.
The accident changed the trajectory of the Gill family in many ways, including their housing. Matthew’s childhood home — a five-bedroom, three-bath split level — wasn’t conducive to his new mobility.
“I am in a wheelchair, full time ... we got a chair lift put in," Matthew said. “I would transfer to that and use that up the stairs, and someone would have to bring up the wheelchair.”
His father, Bill, said: “That led to a lot of frustration for my son early on.”
Despite Bill’s expertise from being in real estate for 32 years, it wasn’t easy to find a home compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Gills initially wanted to stay in their current school district for their youngest daughter, who was then in elementary school. They looked at “hundreds of homes online” and viewed about 80 homes in person — seeking residences with first-floor master bedrooms or ranch homes that could be remodeled.
Unable to find anything suitable, Bill, the branch manager of a real estate agency in Naperville, Ill., decided to design and build a home.
"Some of the homes just needed so much work," he said. "And we were doing all of this with everything else going on — trying to work, a sixth grader, three kids in college, and then Matt. The entire family was just devastated at this injury."
But then a six-bedroom, 4½-bath house became available. The Gills remodeled and moved in during March 2015.
“The house was about the same floor plan that we were designing, and yet buying it was half the cost of building a house,” Bill Gill said. “And the modifications we did were about half the cost of what any other house we looked at would have been.”
Taking out a pantry to add a vertical platform lift for Matthew’s wheelchair.
A bedroom with a fan, thermostat and lights controlled by Matt’s phone.
A roll-in luxury shower and custom bathtub.
Hallways and doorways wider than his 28-inch chair.
No steps, including to the outside deck.
A refrigerator with shallow shelves and wide doors.
A kitchen island that allows Matt access to the oven and stove.
A three-car garage with a ramp that allows Matt direct access to the house.
“Accessible means different things to different people," Bill said. "To some people it means a ranch home, but it might be a ranch home with steps down to the family room. ... Here, Matthew can get into every room in the house.”
As of 2011, just 3.5% of all U.S. homes had basic accessibility features, including grab bars or handrails in the bathroom, extra-wide hallways and doors, and a bedroom on the entry level, according to the Housing America’s Older Adults 2019 report released by Harvard University. Given that mobility and other difficulties increase with age, the report projected that many older homeowners would need to improve accessibility to remain in their homes.
“We have been doing a lot more jobs where we’re basically getting houses more accessible as our clients age,” said Bob Zuber, a partner at Morgante Wilson Architects in Evanston, Ill. “We’re talking about bigger bathrooms, elevators, wider hallways, and first floors that are closer to ground level with the possibility of ramps integrated into the landscape or into the front porch.”
Knowing a client’s needs requires specificity when it comes to finding or designing for accessibility, says Dave Ernst, a principal with Morgante who designed a house for Susan and Jon Newsome to accommodate to Jon’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) needs. Their home includes:
A ceiling-mounted lift system that uses a sling to transport Jon between the master bedroom and bath, which features an ADA-compliant vanity and tub/wet room area.
An elevator that accesses the basement and second floor.
A main hallway that transverses the center of the home and provides access to all major first-floor living spaces. (A reinforced handrail is gracefully incorporated into the hallway’s wainscot paneling chair rail.)
Jon, 77, was diagnosed in 2010 and is immobile now. Although they had some idea of what adaptations the house would need, Susan said, architects provided research. Communication is key, too.
“It’s important that they find out what that person is going to need based upon their lifestyle and what they want to do,” she said.
Morgante said he is now working on homes for thirtysomethings that will leave room for accessibility features to be added when the time comes.
Looking back, Bill says networking with more people in similar situations is essential when looking for and preparing to buy an accessible home.
“Finding resources to help you — people who have gone there before — that’s the biggest thing,” Bill said. “You need more perspectives and input, and that’s going to be the best help you can get.”