NEW WILMINGTON, Pa.– Our car slowly rounded each turn of the uphill forest path. The Spina Bifida Association was tucked away at the very top; private and quiet for the residents living at the Fithian House.
A small apartment-style building, Fithian House is a unique independent living program for those with Spina Bifida, or similar disorders. Unlike many homes and other residential buildings, even the ones that claim to be fully accessible, Fithian has taken every challenge of living in a wheelchair and solved it. It’s mapped with wide hallways, each stove top has a downward mirror, and not a step is in sight.
I was fortunate to have made it there at all. The friendly employee, Diane, was kind enough to give me a lift after I had mistaken their office location for the location of my appointment at the Fithian House. I guess it was a bit too hidden back there in the woods!
We made small talk during the short ride, and soon pulled into the final destination of the association’s windy driveway. Diane lead me through the glass sliding doors, and referred me to Wayne, another employee who would be giving me the low-down of the association.
“Their(the residents’) apartments are fully accessible to them,” Wayne said to me at our interview.
Wayne had grown along with the Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania (SBAWP). He was a camp counselor at one of its humble beginnings of Camp Friday for Spina Bifida. He continued to stick with the programs and buildings as they expanded over the years, which happened particularly in the 1990’s.
We did a go around of the Fithian House, Wayne pointing out every room and its purpose. Introducing me to any residents along the way. He had told me of the need for more truly accessible buildings like this before, and I could see what he meant. That back outdoor area they use for cookouts? Most places would have added a big concrete step or two at the door. And many contractors don’t think to make hallways or openings wide enough for a wheelchair. Whereas at the Fithian House, there was room to spare.
It was the same case with SBAWP’s other residence building, the Gatehouse. Tenants are offered a transitional housing program, where they learn different skills related to independent living. Whilst I chatted with the residents and staff, I turned my head to the sight of a huge glass sliding door. It had a perfectly flat entrance to the outside deck, leading to a beautiful, overhead view of the surrounding forest. The corridors and dorms inside were more narrow than those of the Fithian, but still wheelchair manageable.
Both buildings were so well designed, that the residents had little complaints about living in a wheelchair. I went there in part looking for the day to day struggles of their condition, asking about possible routine obstacles. However, they appeared stumped by the question, and couldn’t give me much.
“I pretty much can do a lot of the things on my own, ’cause I have a lot of my own different devices that I can use,” tenant Kenya, whom I talked with a great deal, said to me, “…it’s really not that hard for me.”
Kenya, a resident of Fithian House for about nine years, often uses a grabbing stick for out-of-reach items. She usually only needs assistance for the things that remain out of reach.
As she showed me through her apartment and its many accommodations, I spotted a wheelchair-welding Barbie doll by the couch. I happened to recognize this as Becky, the discontinued friend of Barbie from around the late 90’s. It was an ironic effort of the creators to include more disabled children in their demographic, that was short-lived as her wheelchair couldn’t fit into Barbie’s house. Even toy companies often fail to remember the details that come with wheelchair living. One of the few remaining Becky friends now sits in Kenya’s apartment, an old, loving Christmas gift from her mother.
Just like Becky’s situation, lots of people simply don’t take everything into account when it comes to disability accommodations. Fortunately, this handful of people with Spina Bifida have found one of the few places that actually does. And with the lack of concerns from these residents, it’s obvious that SBAWP housing is the kind of place we need more of in the community.