Universal design became part of my life in 1965, the year my parents moved into the only house designed for someone in a wheelchair in our small town of 8,500 people. Because of its universal design, Dad could wheel anywhere in our home without assistance. More importantly, he could wheel outside in good weather, park in the driveway, and engage in conversation with anyone who came along.
“Hello,” he boomed to pedestrians on our street. “Grab a lawn chair from the garage and sit with me for a spell.” More often than not, they did. Many came back the next day and the next, throughout the summer, until Dad had converted strangers into friends. All because our home’s universal design afforded him a rare freedom in a day and age when every church, library, school, store, and governmental building in town was closed to him and many others unable to navigate curbs, climb stairs, or enter narrow doorways.
By the time I left my parents’ home in 1978, Dad was too weak to visit my husband and me. A small blessing since he couldn’t have entered any of the homes we lived in unassisted. That undeniable fact niggled at me for decades. “If Dad could still travel,” I told my husband, “he wouldn’t be able to enter our house. He couldn’t use the bathroom or stay over night.”
My husband would nod at my proclamations. We knew that lack of universal design was excluding friends, family members, or church family with mobility issues from our home. Lack of universal design was also thwarting God’s design for His church, excluding the very people Jesus actively ministered to. But lack of funds kept us from making modifications to change the situation, a reality that made me feel sad, frustrated, and guilty in turn.
In 2017 when we moved into the home where we live now. A home we chose in part because it could easily incorporate universal design, something we could finally afford to do. As soon as we were settled, we hired a concrete contractor to pour an accessible porch and ramp in front of our house. It required investments of time and money to find a contractor able to create a ramp with the right incline and the porch we envisioned.
“It’s going to be expensive,” my husband warned, well aware of my penny-pinching mentality.
I opened the checkbook without complaint for two overriding reasons. First, our commitment to universal design was an obedient response to God’s command. Second, making our home accessible to the entire body of Christ and to the lost we are called to love was an act of good stewardship.
With the new ramp in place, my elderly mother can more easily and safely enter our home with her walker. Meetings for a ministry board whose members include a woman in a wheelchair can be held at our home. I’m less anxious about transporting my husband after he has hip replacement surgery in the near future. We can welcome families of children with special needs and anyone with mobility issues into our home without hesitation.
As so often happens in God’s economy, this act of obedience and love produced more good than expected. The new porch is a favorite place to sit in the cool of the morning. Our 3-year-old grandson loves to send toy cars racing down the ramp and careening into the flowerbeds on either side. “Stay on the porch,” we say when he wants to play outside but we don’t, it’s edges creating a visual boundary he understands.
My husband and I have more modifications in mind as we can afford them. “Which one comes first?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “The bedroom addition to accommodate wheelchairs and a handicapped bathroom with a walk in shower for when we’re older? The ramp from the house into the garage or the kitchen remodel?”
“Whichever we can afford the soonest,” I answer, smiling as we admire the porch and ramp. I imagine how pleased my father would have been to navigate the entrance on his own.
“Let’s sit on the porch,” I can hear him saying, “and ask the neighbors to sit a spell when they walk by.”
In the same moment, I sense my heavenly Father’s pleasure in our act of obedience and stewardship, something I could not have imagined or conceived had universal design not been part of God’s design for my father’s disability and my parents move into a their home in 1965.
Jolene Philo grew up with a disabled father and raised a child with special needs. She has also welcomed kids with special needs into her elementary classroom for 25 years. She is the author of several books about special needs parenting, caregiving, and special needs ministry. She blogs at DifferentDream.com and speaks around the country about special needs parenting and inclusion ministry. Jolene and her husband live in Iowa, are parents to two adult children, and are known as Grammy Jo and Papoo to their three adorable grandchildren. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.