As someone who uses a wheelchair, the struggle to create a space that feels right in function and aesthetics has followed me into every place I’ve lived.
When I first scrolled by the Zillow listing for the house that would eventually become ours, I was unimpressed. I was on the lookout for a home that greeted me with a love-at-first-sight wave; some place cheery and charming, maybe with a cozy porch or a bright-yellow front door. Instead, this squatty 1950s ranch-style house painted three shades of brown looked like a sad, droopy mushroom. I’m not the first or only person to ever scrutinize listing photos, trying to deduce whether or not this could be The One, but I am looking for a specific combination of traits: a house that is accessible and actually nice to look at.
I’ve used a wheelchair most of my life; I’ve never had an easy time house hunting. The first place I lived on my own was a subsidized apartment in a building designated for seniors and disabled folks in the Kansas City suburbs. It was an accessibility dream, with kitchen and bathroom sinks I could roll my chair under and handrails in all the right places. But to make those accommodations, the original sink cabinets had simply been removed, leaving a mess of pipes and tubes fully exposed. In the bathroom, there were two long, bright-red cords I could pull to alert the fire department if I fell. The white vinyl tiles across the apartment’s drop ceiling felt like the view from an office cubicle. It was not homey, but it was profoundly convenient.
Since then, I’ve lived in rented houses full of charm, with bathrooms too narrow for a wheelchair and street parking that required I pop a curb every time I came or went. As I started the search for a home to buy with my partner, Micah, in the fall of 2019, I didn’t want to have to compromise the ease of accessibility for the joy of style. Of course, a few months into our search, the pandemic began to take its toll on the housing market. If finding an affordable-ish, accessible-ish, charming-ish home felt like some kind of hopeful possibility before, it certainly didn’t now.
We knew we weren’t going to find an accessible dream house, but the longer we looked, the less likely it seemed we would find a house that was minimally functional, let alone charming.
Micah and I started looking for a house when we found out I was pregnant. We were living just outside of downtown Kansas City, renting a one-bedroom house literally crumbling under more than a hundred years of wear and tear with a postage stamp–size yard that the many stray animals in the neighborhood used as their litter box. Two years into our search, our now-toddler was shooting from tiny room to tiny room like a rocket while his parents tried to sleep nights on a futon in the living room/office. We were desperate.
Late one night, half my body resting on the futon, the other half on the coffee table, I combed back through every Zillow listing still on the market and anywhere near our price range—even the three-shades-of-brown, droopy mushroom house I’d noticed the week before. It was one of those rare homes that met our essential criteria: within our price range, all on one floor, and with at least two bedrooms. I examined the photographs carefully. We’d wasted so much time visiting homes that looked at first glance like they could be accessible, but surprised us with inconvenient, sometimes bizarre design choices like compact kitchens not wide enough to fit both a wheelchair and an open oven door, or three entry steps into a bedroom closet. We knew we weren’t going to find an accessible dream house; we’d have to put time and money into some DIY accommodations. But the longer we looked, the less likely it seemed we would find a house that was minimally functional, let alone charming—which is why I audibly gasped when I spotted what looked like a ramp in the backyard of the three-shades-of-brown Zillow listing. I zoomed in and silently passed the phone to Micah, eyebrows raised to my hairline. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing? We texted our realtor.
The three-shades-of-brown house was maybe the 60th listing we’d toured in two years. As I rolled up to the ramp I’d seen in the photo, I felt an unexpected ease in my body. This was the first potential home I’d been able to enter without Micah tilting me back, bumping me up a flight of stairs, and wrestling with a glass storm door or giant potted plant to get me inside. Instead, the ride into the house was seamless. That peace and sturdiness I felt through my shoulders and in my chest was autonomy.
Inside, the walls were an aggressive yellow and Mother Goose blue, the floors a patchwork of clashing laminate. The kitchen was cramped and outdated. The bathroom walls were covered in a strange stucco. It wasn’t dreamy. But we could afford it, and if we rearranged the kitchen and lopped off a quarter-inch from the bathroom door, there would be just enough wheelchair access to feel doable. And that gorgeous, liberating ramp; it all worked like nothing else had. (We later learned the ramp had actually been built for the previous owner’s aging dog. I would go on to share this detail with anyone who would listen without knowing exactly why it felt like the most fantastically poignant bow to our exasperating house hunting journey—maybe because it underscores just how many stars must align in order for one disabled person to find a suitable structure that feels like home.)
Two months later, with the help of our families and one generous handyman, we moved into the house with our toddler and set to work breathing style and accessibility into every square foot on a tight budget. Installing grab bars in the bathroom was a top priority, so we were thrilled to discover that, in addition to the stark metal ones you see in most medical settings, Home Depot offers simple white options. We installed one by the sink, one that now doubles as a towel rack, and one next to the tub that we’ve become especially grateful for when our sopping wet toddler is clambering out of his evening bath. We widened the bathroom doorway by just a hair—and while I still can’t close the door while my chair is in the room, it does allow me to push right up next to the toilet and the bathtub for easy transfers. Before we even moved in, our handyman removed about two inches of layered linoleum in the kitchen that had piled up over the decades and replaced the mismatched floors with wheat field oak laminate. Not only does the whole space feel brighter and more cohesive, but now I don’t have to pop a tiny wheelie every time I move in and out of the kitchen.
A good portion of the kitchen cupboards were tucked into the corner against the side of the oven, making it impossible for me to access the cramped storage. To open up the space, we took out some of the corner cabinets and sold the massive refrigerator that came with the house. Then, we bought the smallest refrigerator we could find, placed it where the cabinets had been, and pushed the oven to the other side of the kitchen. The cabinets above the counters remain inaccessible to me, but now I have access to a few more shelves for essentials. We painted every wall and tile, mostly silky white with a pocket of sage green in the kitchen and salmon pink in the bathroom. Throughout the house, we covered the blank walls with paintings from thrift stores and pieces by our favorite artists (including our toddler’s originals). We’re taking it slow, accommodating and refashioning our home into the space we need and also want.
When we first moved in, we were adamant that one day we would definitely paint over all three shades of brown on the exterior. A few months later, as we eased into spring, we were shocked to realize that the entire house was surrounded by flowers—lilacs, tulips, peonies, lavender, hibiscuses bigger than our faces, and big juicy hydrangeas that look like they were pulled straight from the periwinkle band of a rainbow. It’s weird how brown doesn’t feel sad when it’s surrounded by bursts of vibrant life. Or how a house can start to feel like home when it fits your needs and tastes—when you’re allowed to be a whole human in it.
Top illustration by Vicki Ling.
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