Living Arrangements


Universal Design Makes This Home, Sweet Home

Frank and Sharon Palermo's renovated house, which was redesigned by Frank, who is an architect.

Frank and Sharon Palermo’s renovated house, which was redesigned by Frank, who is an architect.

Visitors to the home of Frank and Sharon Palermo are struck by the beauty of the house – open-concept design, hardwood floors, granite countertops and maple cabinetry in the kitchen, a deck off the dining room and another off the kitchen. The entryway is flooded with light from windows lining the four-storey stairwell that circles behind a central elevator. How decadent – an elevator!

It is only after Sharon comes to greet you in her wheelchair that you realize it is also an accessible house with some of the best features of Universal Design.

In 1996, Sharon was in a car accident that damaged her spine at the C6/7 level. She is now quadriplegic with limited use of her arms and hands. She received a sizeable settlement from her insurance company. This paid for renovations to make their house accessible. Frank, a talented architect, used his creativity and skill to make their home a joy to live in.

Their house was a bungalow with a finished basement, perched on a ravine in a rural area near Bedford, N.S. Unfortunately, the house was too small to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, so they decided to add a second floor and a loft.

While Sharon was in rehab, Frank kept both their spirits up with plans for the renovation. He planned features that would change with the daylight and the seasons. He closed off the dreary, north-facing windows at the front of the house and replaced them with high clerestory windows. He built walls of south-facing windows overlooking the ravine. In the wintertime, sunlight pours into the house, providing extra warmth; in the summer, the light filtered through the trees keeps the house cool, and the view is lush.

Sharon Palermo in her kitchen

The house is open-concept, with one area flowing into the next. Frank varied the height and slope of the ceilings so that ambient light in the house changes in shade and texture from morning to evening. The elevator takes Sharon down to the laundry area in the basement and up to their bedroom and accessible bathroom on the second floor. Frank’s office is in the basement.

It’s in the kitchen that the accommodations are most striking. There are two sinks, one at traditional height and the other lower and shallower with space underneath for Sharon to tuck in her wheelchair. There is also room for her to sit at the cooktop, which has front-mounted knobs for easy control.

Sharon's built-in desk.

A pull-out trolley provides workspace, and a built-in desk allows Sharon, who writes children’s stories, to set up her office in the kitchen. Open shelving units give her easy access to everyday condiments and utensils. There is also a pull-out cutting board and tuck-in space under the wide “L” at the end of the main counter.

Throughout the house, passageways are wide, light switches are low, and door handles are levered. A door off the kitchen leads to the side deck, and a raised bridge connects to the rear deck. The bridge skirts around the edge of the house and out over the ravine like a private nature trail. The ravine is home to birds, squirrels and even deer, so the view is always lovely, especially in the summer. There are also a combination of conventional and raised flower boxes on the deck, which Sharon uses for gardening.

In the upstairs bedroom, there is a stationary lift that helps Sharon transfer from her bed to a shower chair, and the bathroom is subdivided with a section of tiled wall that marks off the roll-through shower. She has a roll-in closet with clothing racks on each side and a central aisle of open storage units for sweaters and other bulky clothes.

The Palermos’ home is a wonderful example of how builders and home owners can incorporate elements of Universal Design. Unfortunately, when a person acquires a disability, he or she is often at a loss as to what renovations are necessary. After renovating their home, the Palermos discovered a few things they would have done differently, had they known what Sharon’s abilities would be.

She notes that often, people put mirrors over the cooktop in the kitchen so that a person in a wheelchair can see what’s happening in the saucepans. She also finds the 90-degree turn required to get her wheelchair tucked under the cooktop difficult, and wishes they had made the space wider so she could come in at an angle. Even the elevator is more of a struggle than she had expected.

The market for Universal Design and disability accommodations is relatively small at present, and finding good advice and competent contractors can be very difficult. There are, however, designers who specialize in this area.

Halifax architect Cynthia Street, of Streetlines Architectural Services for Independent Living, specializes in barrier-free renovations. She advises that anyone building or renovating think carefully about including accessibility features, even if they aren’t needed yet. “We should do this not just for ourselves, but for our families and friends if we want those people to continue participating in our lives, even if they develop mobility problems.”

Accessibility was a key concern for Roz and Alain Anctil when they built their shorefront retirement home on Baie Verte, N.B., as Roz walks with a cane and her late mother used a wheelchair. The entrances were ramped, the living area open-concept, the passageways spacious, and all doorways 36 inches wide. They chose levered handles for doors and taps. Where possible, they put in sliding pocket doors. The bathroom has a walk-in shower and a sunken step-down bath with grab bars. In place of kitchen cupboards, there are drawers for below-counter storage.

When Ben Marston suffered a workplace accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, he received a settlement from the Workers’ Compensation Board to renovate his house. One of the first additions was a roll-in shower, which Marston’s contractor assured him he knew how to build. It has leaked ever since.

Marston now works for Home Safe Living, which specializes in renovations for accessibility and aids for disability. He wishes he’d known about the company when he was injured.

Marston and Sharon Palermo, who got lump-sum payments to make their houses accessible, had to make a lot of important decisions early on as they adjusted to their new circumstances. For others who have grown slowly into disability due to illnesses such as MS or ALS, there is no fund to draw on, and the forgivable loans and grants offered by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) have a ceiling based on an overall family income between $30,000 and $40,000, without taking into account the massive medical expenses experienced by persons with disabilities, whatever their family income.

There is no means test for landlords to apply to loans to make rental units accessible, but they must ensure the units are kept at a lower rent, thus adding a disincentive to take advantage of the program.

Despite the lack of financial help, many people are using whatever means available, including refinancing their homes, to manage accommodations.

The government’s one-year tax-relief program for home renovations has sparked a lot of activity in renovations for accessibility. At Home Safe Living, owner Ron Swan has a desk piled high with work orders for home adaptation projects tapping into CMHC grants and individuals looking to renovate. With the aging population, a lot of his business is now coming from seniors wanting to stay in their own homes despite diminished mobility.

Product information, construction methodology and interior decoration advice based on accessibility and Universal Design have been a market niche too long ignored. As our population ages and soldiers return injured from Iraq and Afghanistan, this just may be the time to garner acceptance of the concept of home, sweet accessible home.

Veronica Leonard is a Halifax-based freelance writer who often writes about disability issues. She is legally blind. For more housing articles, visit


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