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How Inclusive Housing Design Enhances Daily Living For the I/DD Community

By Tim Dolan, Inclusive Housing Coalition

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting with an adult support group at Firefly Autism in Lakewood, CO. Firefly Autism provides a range of personalized support services to children and adults with autism. During our meeting, I heard their insights about inclusive housing — specifically, what the necessaries were regarding housing amenities, building design and service provision that would allow them to thrive.

The group described a vision of living independently yet amid neighbors or family members to be able to help in a pinch. Close proximity to public transportation, grocers and retail shops, as well as the opportunity to socialize, dine and recreate with others in their community were also important. The group expressed the importance of social interaction while also having a private place to retreat and recharge, something so many of us cherish. 

They had a strong consensus that technology is an enormous help in day-to-day living, in addition to maintaining connection with friends and family. Emerging innovations for everyday household items could be advantageous, such as cooking appliances or faucets that turn off if they have been on for too long. For those with executive functioning deficits, smartphone-enabled technology can be very beneficial. The difficulty, as the group and I saw it, is relying on the technology to work when needed and being able to work through solutions when it fails. Perhaps access to technological support would be a valuable housing amenity for the I/DD community. 

As I listened to each participant, parent and staff member share their hopes and desires for inclusive housing, I was not surprised by how similar they were to what we all want for ourselves and our own family. The main difference being that these housing features are deemed ‘nice-to-haves’ for the neurotypical population, yet essential for the I/DD community.

The overarching issue and barrier expressed in the group, as for many Coloradans, is affordability. For many people on the autism spectrum, even rents deemed affordable for very-low income households may strain monthly income and result in housing instability.  

Housing Solutions Based on Design

When discussing potential housing solutions for the I/DD community, which includes those with autism, several housing models were examined. Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, seem like a promising solution. ADUs are secondary and subordinate units to a primary dwelling unit. They provide privacy, but also easy access to loved ones or neighbors. However there are several barriers in their construction, including cost, location and regulation. Fortunately, there are organizations in Denver and high country who are advancing the development of ADUs and hopefully some of these issues will be addressed.

Some suggested a Habitat for Humanity type of execution, which I believe has great potential due to the organization’s dedication to inclusivity and volunteerism, as well as their commitment to engaging the prospective homeowner into the building process.

A neuro-inclusive apartment or townhome community provides the prospects of social interaction, which is important to many in the I/DD community. Certainly the model is not for everyone, but the potential demonstrated by inclusive properties in other parts of the country is promising.  

Homeownership was deemed less of an option because of the current high cost in the Colorado housing market. Although, in some situations, neuro-divergent adults may take over ownership of a parental home, normally through the establishment of a trust account or some other legal arrangement. 

Expanding Access to Inclusive Housing in Colorado

A commonality across all inclusive housing developments — whether they’re referred to a ‘universal design’, ‘trauma-informed design’, ‘green building’, ‘healthy housing’ or some other descriptor — is that they are developed with the goal of improving one’s living experience.  

But if housing solutions were based on findings from focus groups like this one, what might they look like? The group agreed that an affordable and neuro-inclusive, multi-family property that includes access to services, a support network, technology and recreational activities was the proverbial home-run. 

As the discussion on affordable housing continues in Colorado and nationwide, we must ensure that the voices of the I/DD community are heard in order to foster inclusivity in the solutions and strategies that result.


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