Choosing a Contractor for Home Accessibility Modifications for Disabilities and Aging

Patrick BoardmanThe actress Lauren Bacall once said, “A man's illness is his private territory, and no matter how much he loves you and how close you are, you stay an outsider. You are healthy.”

In everyday life, we all know what to do if our car breaks down, if our sink needs repair or if our air conditioning suddenly goes out on a hot day. But for those who are suddenly faced with a catastrophic illness, life can suddenly be a scary and confusing place. With a life-altering illness or catastrophic injury, knowing who to call to solve problems suddenly becomes a much more daunting task.

Fortunately, people have become more familiar with medical supplies and durable medical equipment (DME) over the years. Most people know how to find a company selling wheelchairs and crutches.

Yet when families are suddenly thrust into the responsibility of caring for an ill or injured family member, knowing how to make their homes accessible, barrier free and safe can be challenging. Even families that are savvy and experienced may have trouble figuring out whom to call for a roll-in-shower or door widening.

Let’s Talk About Frank

Take the case of Frank* for example. Frank is a long-time wheelchair user who lives at home with his son who is also in a power wheelchair. Frank has used a wheelchair for more than 20 years. Knowing whom to call for a wheelchair battery, a hospital bed or a nebulizer is no problem for someone like Frank. Since his disability, Frank has learned through experience how to find these products and services.

A few years ago, Frank realized that the floor in his home was becoming spongy due to the heavy power wheelchairs he and his son use every day. A friend at his church recommended a contractor. The contactor gave Frank a quote of $3,000 for the repair and asked for a 50-percent deposit to purchase materials. After Frank made the deposit, the contractor was never heard from again. (Note: A 25-percent deposit is standard for this type of work, according to Jerry Keiderling, of Accessible Home Improvement of America.)

As shocking as this story is, unfortunately it is something I hear on a regular basis. And $1,500 is the entire family income for Frank and his family.

When my company launched its home modifications division, Frank’s story galvanized our resolve to ensure that this never happened again to a person with a disability.

The Knowledge Gap

When working with home modifications, we see two primary client types. First, are aging-in-place customers. These clients want to remain living in their homes as they get older rather than move to a facility. The second client is a person with a disability. These clients have become disabled by means other than the aging process.

Unfortunately, a tremendous void exists in training and knowledge by those who assess the needs of clients who need home modifications.

Time and time again our company has met with case managers and clinicians at major healthcare facilities who have no idea who to call or recommend for making a home more accessible. The common response to family members is to check Google or “The Yellow Pages.” During our meetings with healthcare professionals, we have yet to meet someone who knows where to direct a person with a disability for home modifications or barrier-free access.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. The VGM Group, a network of DME providers, has recently created a new division called Accessible Home Improvement of America (AHIA). AHIA offers a Certified Environmental Access Consultant (C.E.A.C.) credential. Many insurance carriers and healthcare entities have begun to recognize the C.E.A.C. credential for home modifications, much like Medicare has with the assistive technology professional (ATP) credential. (Find out more information about AHIA here.)

Questions to Ask

Often I am asked what someone should look for in selecting a construction or remodeling company for barrier-free access work, and checking for credentials is one of the most important things I recommend. Here are a few questions you should ask when selecting a contractor:

  • Is the company a member of AHIA?
  • Is the company certified aging-in-place (CAPS) certified?
  • Does the company carry liability insurance?
  • Can the company provide references?
  • How long has the company been in business?
  • Does the company have a physical business office?
  • Does the contractor have business cards?
  • Does the company have a Web site?
  • Does the contractor have any Better Business Bureau complaints?
  • Does the contractor have an occupational therapist who can assist with the overall independent living strategy?

In many states, contractors are required to be licensed. Active American is located in Texas where there is no such requirement. In states where there is no required contractor licensure, it is even more important to ensure that the contractor you select understands aging in place and independent living strategies.

Selecting the proper contractor can make life a much more rewarding experience for you and your loved one.

*Name changed to protect the identity of a patient.