Imagine you are 65 years or older and living in your current home or apartment with some type of disability affecting your hearing, vision, cognition, ambulation, self-care or daily activities. Maybe you’re already joining the 34.6% of the Americans 65 and older with a disability (statistics based on 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data report). The American Community Survey that is used to collect the above data factors in six aspects of disability is used to measure overall disability that impacts our daily life: hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living.

 

Let’s factor in searching for a home or apartment for the 9 percent of the U.S. population with some type of disability who are under the age of 65. Or maybe you’re a parent seeking out a home that comfortably supports the active lifestyle of your family of five when one child with cerebral palsy relies on some type of adaptive equipment such as a walker or power wheelchair to participate in all the family activities in your home or community. Or maybe you’re a young professional who uses a wheelchair to get around and complete activities in your living space, work, and community. There are less than one percent of the homes in the U.S. that are accessible, safe, and promote independence for the nearly 13% of the population with a disability.

 

We have to change this.

 

Change is starting slowly throughout the country and one place I’d like to highlight in the Midwest is the apartment complex in St. Louis known as 6 North. A place that encourages inclusion, integration, a sense of community, and accessibility for all. There was a powerful woman behind the idea of inclusion for all, Colleen Starkloff. While she wears many hats, if anyone were to ask her job title, she proudly says she is a disability rights advocate. And when I had the privilege of meeting with her and touring 6 North, I saw the fire and her passion shine through.  It’s quite contagious!

 

But first, let’s look at the history:

In the 1970s, Ms. Colleen Starkloff and her late husband, Max, co-founded one of the first ten federally funded independent living centers in the United States, Paraquad, Inc. A place that promotes inclusion and empowerment for people with disabilities to ultimately increase their independence through choice and opportunity. A place with various programs from disability rights advocacy, independent living skills training, information and referral, peer consultation, promotion of community living and promoting health and wellness, including a gym that accommodates people with all types of disabilities. More of the fascinating Paraquad history can be found HERE as well as Mr. Max Starkloff’s story. The couple also founded the Starkloff Disability Institute(SDI) of St. Louis in 2003, where they continue to advocate for disability rights, and a change in societal attitudes toward people with disabilities. SDI is a powerful advocate for disability rights in the workforce providing people with disabilities the tools and resources to find jobs they are qualified for.  Their DREAM BIG initiative focuses on youth with disabilities and encourages them to DREAM BIG about future employment. Learn more about Ms. Colleen Starkloff HERE.

 

The Starkloffs advocacy didn’t stop at Paraquad or the Starkloff Disability Institute. They continue to make an impact in St. Louis communities by promoting the use and benefits of Universal Design in housing: new construction and gut rehabs; single family for sale or rental units.  Universal Design (UD) is the design of products and spaces in such a way that they can be used by the greatest amount of people with the least amount of adaptation or specialized design.  Universal Design, done well, creates living, working, recreational, infrastructure and transportation spaces and options for people of all ages, races, gender, religions, and abilities. In particular, Universal Design would provide choice in housing for people to remain in their homes and age in place in communities where they feel connected and have invested part of their lives.  The Starkloffs had an opportunity to act on UD promotion in a big way when a building that housed people with disabilities was being torn down and the tenants needed new housing options.  Former Senator Kit Bond provided HUD (Housing and Urban Development) funding to developer McCormack Baron Salazar to build 80 one- and two-bedroom units in a building they named “6 North”, in St. Louis’ fashionable and sought after neighborhood known as the Central West End.  Colleen Starkloff served as a volunteer consultant to the developer and design team, Trivers and Associates, on the design of the entire footprint for this new construction building.  The result was a dream come true for the Starkloffs.  After advocating housing that welcomes all people, disabled or not, regardless of income status, race, gender, ethnicity or religion for years, 6 North provided excellent housing with market rate and tax credit rents so that all people could live in a beautiful city neighborhood and have access to all the convenient amenities that city living has to offer.  6 North includes UD features throughout the entire footprint of the building and grounds it sits upon.  It is one of the most inclusive environments in the United States!

 

Universal Design Elements

The apartment complex is conveniently located in the Central West End where many professionals, college students, and families live, work, and play. It’s within walking distance of restaurants and accessible to public transportation. Keep in mind, when visiting the complex whether as a passerby, on a tour, or seeking apartments, many universal design features are hardly noticed unless you’re looking for these specific features.

 

A gated parking lot is available for residents at a small monthly fee and includes several accessible parking spots close to the entrance, in compliance with ADA (American with Disabilities Act). For those entering/exiting the main entrance from the street, a fairly long curb cut allows ample space for drop off and pickup, leaving plenty of room for large vehicles.  The curb cut was purposely and thoughtfully constructed with extra length and designed beyond the ADA minimum recommendations. When entering the lobby, natural lighting is mimicked by the colors and structure of the ceiling reflecting softer lighting throughout the room. The mailboxes are lowered for easier reach while sitting or standing. Designing “outside the box” is rarely seen in public spaces since most designers will simply design by the code book, which doesn’t always produce a design that takes into account how well the design functions for the end user.

 

When viewing the complex from the parking lot, the exquisite details and purpose of the grading around the building are almost invisible. All ground level doors to enter the garden apartments are covered with an awning, and the sidewalks are sloped away from the doors so rain water will drain into rain gardens, thoughtfully designed at each garden unit. The architects incorporated the original structure of the walkway canopy to shield residents from the rain and sun. Each unit’s exterior door is visually highlighted with contrasting colors to identify the entrance of each unit. All exterior and interior doors are equipped with door levers to ease the effort of opening.

 

Prospective residents can choose from 1-2 bedrooms or a live/work unit, which resembles a suite unit with a sliding “barn door” to close off the bedroom when working or utilizing the other half of the room. The living spaces are thoughtfully designed “outside the box”, with detail to accommodate people of all abilities. The kitchen provides working space at various heights, since part of the island can be adjusted to any height. The side-by-side freezer and fridge are accessed by double doors, reducing the opening space. The dishwasher and ovens are elevated for easier reach whether sitting or standing. While it may not look like the kitchen space meets the standard 60×60 turning space recommended by the accessibility guidelines, the cabinets were designed with a high toe kick allowing ample maneuver space for those in a wheelchair. The upper cabinets are lower than standard kitchen designs.

 

The bathrooms are not your standard size apartment bathrooms. They are quite large and in fact, most residents will highlight the bathroom as one of the best rooms in the units! While they may state the showers are a little on the narrow side, there are no complaints to the space provided for their daily hygiene routines. The washer/dryers are even inside these bathrooms on pedestals, with front mounted controls for easy reach. Blocking behinds walls allows for grab bars to be installed, should a tenant need them.  Outlets are within reach (15-18” above finished floor) for seated tenants. Linen closets (cabinets) are hung on the wall, instead of installed on the floor so that there is space below them for a wheelchair user to swing their footrests underneath as part of a 5-foot turning space in the bathroom.  These cabinets are raised off the floor approximately 10.” The showers are quite large; however, for those in wider wheelchairs or shower chairs may have a little more trouble keeping water inside. Longer shower curtains are used to help contain water.  All shower heads are removable which makes it easier to sit and shower, and great for showering kids and dogs, too.

 

The bedrooms allow plenty of maneuver space even with a queen size bed. A king size bed will still fit but may restrict ample space for a bedside table on each side. The louvered windows in the bedrooms integrate universal design because they are installed at a lower height so that a standing or seated person can easily open and close them. The window locks are within reach of a seated person and the windows push outward to open them.  The windows are oversized, allowing lots of natural light into each unit.  There are closets with adjustable shelving and sliding doors to allow anyone at any height to reach the shelves and hanging racks. All the interior/exterior doors are 3 feet or wider.

 

For those who are legally blind, color contrast is integrated throughout the building from the doors to the floors. The carpet squares are installed so that the darkest colors are located at the entrances to each apartment, making finding your apartment so much easier. Color contrast and texture change are also used in the flooring to predict a transition from one room or space to another.

 

The designs described above are just the tip of the iceberg. There are more functional designs revealed below the surface of 6 North. Given the convenient location, access to public transportation, the accessibility of the units and grounds for all people, it’s no surprise that most residents with disabilities have lived there since it’s opened and the units remain rented with a waiting list on file! A new apartment went up next door and as told by some of the residents, it’s nice and new but the bathrooms are small! There is a sense of inclusion and community all in one place at 6 North. The grounds are welcoming and inviting to all without limitations or stipulations from the lobby entrance to the living quarters. It’s a place of inclusion encouraging integration that promotes the health and well-being of residents providing them with a sense of community without having to break down barriers or segregate the population. We need more complexes from apartments to condos and residential neighborhoods with this same concept of inclusion…a place universally usable by all.  Let’s continue the change!