When Jim and Julie Schmiesing bought a spacious, two-story house in Newport Beach, the home seemed ideal for their large, active family. The elegant sunken living room and formal dining area off the entry were perfect for entertaining; and the warm, country-style kitchen overlooked a step-down family room designed for informal gatherings.
Then tragedy struck in 1980, and the Schmiesings rapidly discovered that the house's once-appealing architectural features were nightmarish obstacles. The cozy and inviting multileveled areas became off limits to their son Tony, then 16, who broke his neck in a diving accident and returned home a quadriplegic.
"Steps and steep driveways are the first barriers a wheelchair user faces," Jim Schmiesing explains. "Inside, it's the same problem. If there are different levels, ramps are needed, and often the angles are just too steep to maneuver."
Because the structural layout of the home made it impossible to accommodate a wheelchair user and isolated Tony from the rest of the family, the Schmiesings sold the house and purchased another that they remodeled extensively to prevent obstacles.
Although the new house is also a two-story model, the lot, entry and first floor are flat. The interior features large open areas with virtually no hallways, and furniture is grouped so that a wheelchair can pass through any room unobstructed.
The Schmiesings' new home features hardwood floors and short, tight-napped carpeting to make wheelchair travel easier. Doorways are wide, and doors either slide into the wall or have lever-type handles and open in such a way that a wheelchair can pass through without getting "trapped" on the other side.
Besides an electronically operated hospital bed, Tony's bedroom features lots of windows and a closet with lightweight, ceiling-mounted sliding doors that open to reveal lowered poles and shelving. Nearby, a wide, built-in open-fronted desk--whose surface is narrow enough to accommodate Tony's limited reach--holds books and stereo equipment that is placed along the forward edge for easy tuning.
Nearby, a large, square bathroom with tile walls and floor has been specially designed for Tony's needs. A wide, open shower allows for a stainless steel, water resistant "shower chair" to roll in. The shower head is a hand-held model, and a thermostatic water-mixing lever is built into the wall. Several floor drains carry away water runoff.
A one-piece toilet (which does not require a tank to be mounted on the wall) and a sturdy free-standing sink allow space for the wheelchair to pull up with ease. Exposed plumbing is insulated to protect legs from burns caused by hot pipes. All faucets are the lever type, and grab bars, towel racks and mirrors are mounted lower than usual and well-anchored.
Throughout the house, many counters are open-fronted, and several sections are lowered to create work and eating spaces at wheelchair level. Windowsills are slightly lower than normal, allowing nice views of the outdoors from a sitting position.
Several conveniently located electronic devices not only save time and effort, but also allow Tony to be more independent. Light switches, thermostats and wall-mounted telephones are lowered, and a conveniently located intercom connects Tony's room to the major areas of the house, allowing him to keep in touch with others and to answer the door without making a special trip to the entry.
Wherever possible, appliances with "soft-touch" controls are placed at the edge of desks and countertops to make it possible for Tony to use them. And, because pushing buttons, handling keys and turning locks are a problem, Tony finds remote control units helpful.
In the case of the severely disabled, an even wider range of problems is encountered, but most can be overcome with thoughtful planning. Many ingenious solutions are within the range of simple handyman skills.
"Tony's occupational therapist helped us evaluate our home, and we picked up helpful tips by talking with another family whose son had come home before Tony," Jim Schmiesing recalls.
"The occupational therapist began by telling us the minimal things we needed to do to care for Tony. It started with a home visit in which Tony, the family and the therapist met together to plan for Tony's homecoming. After that, it was a matter of finding ways to overcome problems as we encountered them."
Jim Schmiesing offers this advice to families faced with similar challenges: "First, never give up hope for a cure. We have absolutely no idea what advances medicine will make tomorrow. Next, always be aware--there are so many little things that we can do. It just takes a heightened level of consciousness and concern for the disabled in our midst. Finally, remember that you don't need to buy expensive medically related stuff--most things are available in regular hardware stores."
Thinking back on the layout of that first home, Julie Schmiesing, who is now a realtor, reflects: "It was a great house, but after Tony's accident, it became impossible to live there. Nowadays, when I tour a house, one of the first things I think about is what it would be like if a handicapped person had to live in it."