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Documenting Independence at Home

A film by Rolling Productions features accessibility success stories.

For four years, a Falls Church man couldn’t use his own bathroom after he began using a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury.

With the help of a grant, the person’s home underwent several modifications that in 10 short days transformed his bathroom into a model of accessibility, with the effort documented on video.

In another clip, the video shows a woman with cerebral palsy who was virtually trapped inside her home without help from a friend or family member to navigate up and down a steep and dilapidated wooden ramp outside her Alexandria home. With grant money, a new, aluminum ramp was built for the woman allowing her to steer her electric scooter in and out of her home unassisted.

As part of a 25-minute film produced by Rolling Productions, each scene chronicles an accessibility success story in which people with disabilities in Northern Virginia gain freedom and independence through various home modifications funded by a state grant.

The film’s producers, Fatima Miller and Neel Ellis, the Rolling Productions team who also wrote and directed the documentary, understand the housing plight for people with disabilities.

Both Miller and Ellis, wheelchair users diagnosed with multiple sclerosis have worked to increase awareness about the area’s shortage of affordable and accessible housing -- something all too familiar to Miller.

"I was technically homeless for four years," said Miller, who was diagnosed with progressive MS in 1997. In the United States, MS affects about 400,000 people, causing fatigue, difficulty walking, spasticity, vision problems, bladder dysfunction, pain and dizziness. When Miller went through a divorce a few years later, losing her home in the settlement, she found it difficult to find affordable, accessible housing.

"I was on every [housing] waiting list known to man."

During her search, Miller met Ellis, who was diagnosed with progressive MS in 1993. He lived at the Hunters Woods Fellowship House in Reston, which had several accessible units.

When Miller finally found housing, which happened to be at the Fellowship House, it was a bittersweet moment.

"That was the most profound list to be on -- my name was moving up because people were dying," said Miller, almost crying as she recalled her transition out of homelessness. "I had met the person [who previously lived in the apartment] because it was [the Fellowship House] where Neel lived. Her name was Vivian.

"I got her apartment because she died," said Miller.

MILLIONS OF AMERICANS with disabilities need help getting around in their homes and performing everyday tasks, sometimes caused by their own home’s inaccessibility. "It's something we take for granted," said Ellis, referring to barriers in homes such as narrow doorways, unusable fixtures or steps leading into the home.

In Fairfax County, according to disability services, one in eight people have some type of disability and one in four people on the waiting list for affordable housing have a family member with a disability living with them. As was the case for Miller, finding accessible and affordable housing can be a challenge.

It was Miller’s personal experience that inspired her to join with Ellis and others to help form the Coalition for Housing Opportunities In the Community for Everyone (CHOICE), a private, nonprofit created in 2002.

"We became advocates because we saw how inaccessible things were," said Miller, a CHOICE board member.

A year after forming, CHOICE received a $100,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Labor to fund home modifications that would help people with disabilities who couldn't work because their homes were inaccessible.

"It helped people do what they have to do at home so they could go to work," said Jeannie Cummins, president of CHOICE.

The project, called "HomeMods WORK!" was originally intended to help five people in Northern Virginia. "By forming partnerships and leveraging the money, we were able to stretch that to eight people," said Cummins. "But we’re not talking about a grab bar here and there, these were really significant home modifications."

THE PROJECT provided several different types of home modifications, including camera monitoring and door-opener systems, roll-in showers, and wood or aluminum ramps, all of which enabled recipients to pursue employment. "This project demonstrated the link between home modifications and employment," said Cummins.

Community partnerships, Cummins explained, were "crucial" to the success of the project. The ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia assisted CHOICE with identifying area residents with disabilities who were pursuing or trying to keep employment, but needed home modifications to do so. With the help of Robert Pierre Johnson Housing Development Corporation in Arlington, the project minimized labor costs with the help of trained volunteers. RPJ's volunteer home repair programs, Rebuilding Together and Hearts and Hammers, organized teams of volunteers from local places of worship, businesses and community groups to perform the home modifications. The Department of Rehabilitative Services offered the expertise of its rehabilitation engineers to provide input on how to design the modifications.

"The work was done on a collaborative nature for the most part," said Cummins, who added that CHOICE runs on “volunteer steam."

The project still has a $1,000 grant available for one more home modification, which CHOICE hopes to award soon to a ninth recipient.

ROLLING PRODUCTIONS was hired on to document the projects to help increase public awareness about the importance of home modifications. "All the work in the production of the video was done by people with disabilities," said Miller. "And we did it at half the cost that another production company would have charged."

For Miller and Ellis, making the film became emotional at times.

"Before the modification, we had to ask people what they had to go through and then film it," said Miller, who said she empathized with the people in the film. "It was heartbreaking. It was painful. That was the hardest part of [making the film]."

The video, which debuted about two years ago, has become an outreach tool that CHOICE uses in its effort to increase affordable, accessible housing opportunities for people with disabilities.

The documentary continues to air on Fairfax County Government Channel 16.

"The film definitely points to the success of the grant and can help us get additional funds for home modifications," said Cummins. "We realize that home modifications are critical for accessibility, but the fact of the matter is that we can’t keep building inaccessible homes, so they can later be modified."

THE AGING OF BABY BOOMERS proves the point, said Ellis, also a CHOICE board member. He explained that people will invariably have changing needs as they get older, and those needs will often require greater accessibility in homes.

Toward this end, CHOICE has also worked to influence a change in common practices in new construction.

"Why can't we build houses that can satisfy the greatest number of the population?" said Ellis, who pointed to the common use of round doorknobs as an example. "We’re still using round doorknobs when lever action handles are the easiest thing for people to use."

What happens when your house doesn’t have the capability of adapting or aging with you? asked Miller. It's a question that CHOICE hopes to address in the future. For now, CHOICE board members agree home modifications have an immediate and positive result, which they will continue to support. "But it’s just the tip of the iceberg," said Miller.