Disability path to love

One study estimates that more than 90% of the housing units in the United States are inaccessible to people with disabilities
Thursday, May 24, 2012

“You must be crazy or in love,” a friend observed after I described how I travel to the home of the woman I love (257 miles away). From my apartment at State College, Pa., I drive my Pride Mobility rear wheel drive scooter onto a paratransit van where the lift takes me inside. With difficulty, the driver straps my scooter so we are stable. 

At the Megabus stop at Wal-Mart’s parking lot, I am the last to board in the cold. The bus driver takes out a folded-up ramp from the closet next to the bathroom, attaches it neatly at the bottom of the rear door. While the incline is uncomfortably steep, I am soon strapped into place after three rows of seats are collapsed to make room.

Five hours later, I drive down the ramp onto Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, speeding up and down sidewalk curb cuts crosstown to the SeaStreak dock on the East River. After strong demands on the scooter’s power, I drive over the bumps in the ramp onto the ferry.

BCC meets me at the dock. It is night. BCC does not have a wheelchair ramp on her car and I would prefer driving the New Jersey suburban streets myself, but a friendly banker decides to help. He and BCC lift the scooter onto the truck. A few minutes later I am at the small cottage where I have trouble getting off the gravel and onto the concrete path leading to BCC’s door. I park next to the door (covering the scooter). Putting on shoulder and kneepads, I crawl over the high step into the house. On a previous visit, I left my blissfully-narrow Amigo travel scooter. It is waiting as I crawl onto it. BCC encourages crawling (something I do not otherwise do with company after receiving looks of apprehension at the sight of a 64 year-old paraplegic moving on hands and knees).

Imagine you are sitting next to me looking at a map on my computer screen. This is the moment where I click zoom out for a larger view of the territory. Let us call this map, “Life with a disability.” Where do I go if I want a more comprehensive view? To the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

The SEC requires every public corporation to file a 10-K form, a beautiful document written by very well paid lawyers who know how to write. The document provides a comprehensive description not only of the company, but also of the industry in which it operates. I am reading now Invacare’s 10K form. (Several mobility equipment manufacturers are privately owned and do not have to disclose their business plans to people like me with Internet access.)

The first paragraph begins: “Invacare Corporation is the world’s leading manufacturer and distributor in the estimated $11 billion worldwide market for medical equipment and supplies used in the home ….” I am the target audience for an $11 billion market where many HME News readers compete. This is a growing market: “By 2030, the number of people in the United States over 65 is expected to exceed 70 million…Undoubtedly, as health care consumers, the baby boomer population will have strong opinions and preferences about their treatment settings.” The account of my travel clearly describes a customer with “strong opinions and preferences.” I am the market you are aiming to reach.

The industry will succeed as it continues to solve the problems people with disabilities face in a largely inaccessible world. Stanley K. Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, writes: “People with mobility impairments often need features like zero-step entrances and wide interior doorways…but such features are generally missing in the U.S. housing stock. One study estimated that more than 90% of the housing units in the United States are inaccessible to people with disabilities; another estimated that the vast majority of newly built single family homes have steps at all entrances.”

In 1994, I suddenly lost the ability to walk. My disability destroyed a good 18-year marriage. Will my current path to love lead to a successful relationship? Who knows? The barriers to success in love are difficult enough. To the degree that the home medical equipment industry helps overcome my competitive disadvantage with women, we both benefit.

Joel Solkoff, a former consultant to the Securities and Exchange Commission, blogs on the use of virtual reality in constructing housing for the disabled and elderly at his website www.joelsolkoff.com.