Smith looks to affect Concrete Change
by Andrew Clause
When most people are invited to another persons home for dinner,
their biggest concern is what kind of salad to bring. Eleanor Smith
has to worry about whether she can get in the door.
Smith 65 was struck with polio when she was 3 years old and
has used a wheelchair ever since. While growing up, she quickly
learned that visiting someones house can be an ordeal.
First of all, most houses have steps below every entrance. Second,
the bathroom door is usually the narrowest door in the house
making it impossible for those in wheelchairs to squeeze through.
For Smith, these building parameters and the standards used
by most contractors represent a breach of community. How
houses are built is so intricate to the fabric of a community,
she said. I have known people who had to crawl on the floor
in their own house to get to the bathroom.
Driven by her deep love of community, which she said was cultivated
at Goshen College, Smith started fighting to change those parameters.
One day I was driving around looking at houses, and there
was a new subdivision going up, she said. All the sudden
a light bulb went off: Why would there be just these few houses
for disabled people, when they are people who have lives too
they want to go places, she said.
In 1986, her quest for equality led her to establish Concrete Change,
a group with a mission to ensure basic access for disabled people
in newly constructed private homes a concept she dubbed universal
Universal visitability, said Smith, means constructing homes to
have at least one exterior door at ground level no steps
and a bathroom door with a 32-inch passage. Most people dont
realize changing building parameters is not necessarily difficult
or expensive, she said, but they also dont realize it is fundamental
to having a home welcome to all.
It is not okay for the very same barriers to be built in every
new house, said Smith. It is very simple, but very profound
in its difficulty to change assumptions and habits.
Having attended Goshen College in the 1960s, during the most heated
era of the civil rights movement, she was no stranger to causes
for social change. In the 80s, she became involved in the
disabled rights movement, lobbying for a wheelchair lift in every
bus. When her condition worsened, she stopped teaching ESL and made
the disabled rights movement her life, founding Concrete Change.
Her group uses any means necessary to inform people of the changes
that need to be made, from letter writing to street theater to civil
disobedience. We see it as part of a wonderful justice struggle,
thats very akin to other justice struggles.
And Smith has affected change.
In Atlanta alone, where Smith lives, 800 houses are being built
with Concrete Changes complete visitability guidelines. Also,
in 1989 Atlanta Habitat for Humanity started building all new houses
without steps and with a bathroom door large enough to accommodate
a wheelchair. This year, Concrete Change was also mentioned in the
New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Though advocates from all over the country have called her to say
they have seen her Web site and believe in her mission, the biggest
struggle, she said, is getting builders to change their construction
(Builders) tend to be anti-regulatory, unless the regulation
helps them, she said. And they have been able to smash
most attempts at legislation.
But every change is a victory, and some of the most important changes
have affected Smiths own life.
Inspired by her vision for change, all of Smiths neighbors
in her Atlanta neighborhood built their houses according to her
parameters. Now, she is never afraid to visit a friend. Where
I happen to live now is the first place Ive lived in a neighborhood
where I can knock on a neighbors door and accept an invitation
to come in and play Scrabble, she said.
The many inspiring stories of disabled people who have been able
to accept invitations to be a guest in new houses keeps her going.
For example, one of her neighbors started dating a man in a wheelchair,
who experienced complete visitability and for
the first time he didnt need to be picked up to get into the
bathroom while visiting a friend.
Smith said the movement will continue to gain momentum as the baby
boom generation ages and the elderly population in the United States
continues to grow. Basic home access helps people stay in
their homes longer as they age, said Smith. A house
is part of the current community, and its also part of the
generations to come.
Smith describes herself as a community oriented person, and said
that when she graduated from Goshen, she missed the community she
was once a part of. When youre immersed in it, you dont
even have to talk about it because it is there, she said.
You only notice it when you go away and its not there.
But beyond community, the life she is leading is one of responsibility,
said Smith: using her talents to shape the world in a positive way.
Its the idea that we are part of a world that we can
affect. she said. We have an opportunity and a responsibility.
For more information about visitability issues and Concert Change,
Editors note: Andrew Clouse is a junior from Goshen with
a double major in music and communication. He will spend the summer
of 2002 as an intern at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.,
with the Pulliam Fellowship program, one of the countrys most
prestigious journalism awards.