The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | December 2008
Ready, Willing and Able

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On dedication day, Habitat homeowner Kylie Norton visits with Weatherford mayor Dennis Hooks.

Ready, Willing and Able continued

Building on abilities
Norton’s house is one of the latest in a long tradition of Habitat houses built in partnership with people who have disabilities. In 1999, Habitat for Humanity International embarked on series of construction projects in which volunteers with disabilities built houses with homeowners with disabilities. These Ability Builds — named for partners ABILITY magazine and its nonprofit project arm, ABILITY Awareness — have continued in various locations across the United States since then.

Though the range of disabilities that impacts an individual or family’s capacity to find and afford decent housing is substantial, most visible is the need to use a wheelchair for mobility. The design modifications that make a housing unit wheelchair-accessible generally aren’t difficult, especially in new construction, but the extra features are scarce in a country in which even the “normal” affordable housing stock is steadily shrinking.

“It’s nearly impossible to find affordable homes with or without accessibility issues,” says Tonia Collinske, director of public relations for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County (Calif.). “Orange County is one of the most expensive places in the country to purchase or rent a home.”

Volunteers from The Arc of Orange County help build an accessible house.
In early 2008, Habitat Orange County approved a family whose daughter, Mariam, has cerebral palsy. When director of family services Nancy Cast realized Mariam’s wheelchair would not be suited to the two-story home the family qualified for, she started making phone calls.

Working with two other families who were also qualified to purchase homes, Nancy asked if they would consider changing their plans on Mariam’s behalf. They did. Mariam’s family was able to purchase a one-story Habitat home that was scheduled to be refurbished and resold.

Prior to this time, Judith Pennella, executive director of ABILITY Awareness, had provided a presentation to construction crew leaders about working with and recruiting volunteers who have disabilities for Habitat build sites. When Nancy called Judith about Mariam’s situation, ABILITY Awareness became a resource for the affiliate in identifying universal design features to fit the family’s needs as well as connecting the affiliate with volunteers from The Arc of Orange County. The Arc volunteers worked on the build site to help remodel Mariam’s home once a week for 11 weeks, building relationships with each other and the broader community.

“Carol, a volunteer from The Arc of Orange County, was fanatic about hammering,” Collinske says. “No other tasks interested her nearly as much. After a couple of days of training, she became so good at hammering and was so enthusiastic that all of the volunteers from the Arc would surround her and cheer her on. It was pretty amazing to see the unity and teamwork that was a result of Carol and her love for hammering!”

Through the process of building with Mariam’s family, the affiliate learned the importance of developing a close relationship with families that have special needs to ensure they know about the resources available to them, Collinske says.

“Just like the other Habitat program families, those with a family member with disabilities are busy taking care of their lives from moment to moment,” Collinske says. “Because of that, they may not even think about requiring accommodations for a family member. It simply hadn’t occurred to Mariam’s father that we might be able to widen doors or build ramps to make life a little easier, not just for Mariam, but for the entire family. If we hadn’t brought up the subject of a single-story home, this family would have gladly purchased the two-story without comment. They would make do and be glad to have a home of their own.”


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