the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Eleanor SmithEleanor Smith looks to affect Concrete Change

by Andrew Clause

When most people are invited to another person’s 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 someone’s 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 visitability.”

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 don’t realize changing building parameters is not necessarily difficult or expensive, she said, but they also don’t 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, that’s very akin to other justice struggles.”

And Smith has affected change.

In Atlanta alone, where Smith lives, 800 houses are being built with Concrete Change’s 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 habits.

“(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 Smith’s own life.

Inspired by her vision for change, all of Smith’s 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 I’ve lived in a neighborhood where I can knock on a neighbor’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 you’re immersed in it, you don’t 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. “It’s 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, see

Editor’s 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 country’s most prestigious journalism awards.
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