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Program of the Month

 Providing Housing Access to Milwaukee’s Disability Community

By Danna Rhinehart
Disability Program Navigator
Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board

Over the years, the city of Milwaukee has made a significant impact on recognizing the residential needs of the disability community. With strategic partnerships with organizations such as the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, Northcott Neighborhood House, Independence First, Goodwill of Southeastern Wisconsin, and the Disability Program Navigator Initiative, progress continues in the areas of planning and architecturally designing new construction accessible homes. Anyone who is familiar with Milwaukee’s residential market knows that this has not always been the case.

There has seemingly been a ‘very negative stigma’ attached to finding housing for a person with a disability. Whether it is trying to accommodate someone with a physical disability (in the workplace, housing), hearing or vision, the environment was not the best. Furthermore, older buildings in Milwaukee present a great challenge due to their structure and ability to provide proper access needed by the disabled community. Hotels and businesses located in the Greater Milwaukee area have made many changes for their structures. For instance, one hotel’s process for visitors using  a wheelchair is to enter through the back of the concierge’s counter, then travel through a hallway to the kitchen. Finally they arrive at a dumbwaiter, which finally gives them access to one of their ballrooms. Whew! Not easy, but they made a way.

Housing options for this population was very limited and historically most homes have been located in very dangerous and uninviting neighborhoods with little regard for the individuals needs. This may stem from economics and/or what that person could afford to pay. For example, ramps for wheelchairs have resembled “ski slopes” because they were not constructed to code. Entryways, adjoining rooms, hallways and bathrooms in older homes are not wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.  Also, individuals in wheelchairs need someone to assist them throughout their home just for their basic needs. Nevertheless, the housing options were substandard and inadequate. However, this scenario is changing.

Today, there are more options than before for someone with restricted mobility, hearing or vision. Several years ago, Northcott Neighborhood House, a Milwaukee community-based organization, decided to build accessible homes. After selecting the right partners, meetings were held to discuss materials and design. I was able to secure an awarding wining architect to modify plans from the City of Milwaukee for two accessible homes; one with an elevator and one without an elevator. It took two years for the development to come to fruition, however, with the assistance of the City of Milwaukee Housing Department, Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, local Alderman Bob Bauman, Northcott Neighborhood House and the Milwaukee Builds Program (MB)-- designed to provide participants (adults and youth) with valuable training--the new accessible homes are built. 

 I remember having meaningful conversations with the Project Manager about what the MB participants were building. Many of the youth in the program have family or friends that need accessible homes due to serious accidents or illness. They have witnessed what happens when someone is a victim of a violent crime that leads to using a wheelchair for the remainder of their life. They have seen him or her return to the property where they live and not be able to get the wheelchair up the stairs or through a door way. Honestly, they had no idea what “accessible” meant. However, they now have first hand knowledge on what accessible truly means from the size of doors, types of door knobs, height of counters, correct floor materials, showers with chairs and lifts for beds.  More importantly, they are able to understand the quality of life it can bring.
I have always been excited about the life skills training that the Milwaukee Builds Program provides such as carpentry, drywall, electrical, painting, concrete mixing and pouring, door installation, and window installation-- transferrable life skills that MB participants now possess.  Yet, I am equally excited and proud of the completion of the accessible homes and knowing that this is just the beginning! We will continue to connect the Milwaukee disability community to accessible homes, one house at a time!

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