Re: Experiences with/as disabled people in cohousing
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Wed, 7 Mar 2018 12:43:43 -0800 (PST)
> On Mar 7, 2018, at 2:43 PM, Katie Henry <katie-henry [at]> wrote:
> In my former community, we had interest during construction from a woman with 
> extreme environmental sensitivities. As head of outreach, I was torn between 
> being welcoming and being honest about how far the community would go to 
> accommodate her condition. Since it was a multi-family building, it would 
> have meant nobody using anything scented anywhere, no BBQ in the courtyard, 
> etc. I was relieved when she declined. 
> If she had joined early and gotten involved, I think the community probably 
> would have tried to work with her, but it would have been tough. I had 
> visions of an visitor walking by her door wearing perfume and sending her to 
> the hospital. It was too much to ask. 

To add to what Katie said and in response to Allison Tom’s questions about 
disability inclusion in diversity.

One problem with writing a diversity statement is sounding like you have a list 
of diversity tokens you want to check off. I don’t think anyone would have 
qualms about including disability in the string of other diversities. But we 
have all been socially indoctrinated not to talk about disabilities. You accept 
what you see as part of a whole person.

I remember a OT person working with patients who were newly wheelchair bound 
due to accidents. She said, in social situations, you need to take the lead 
because others will not know what to say and be afraid of saying the wrong 
thing. And they don’t want to be the one who rushes forward to make someone 
feel patronized. Unless people are familiar with a particular disability they 
will be shy.

The other issue is that there are so many levels to “disability.” in cohousing 
we know what everyone’s disabilities are and most of them are invisible. I once 
wondered if we were a particularly disabled block of houses. Other 
neighborhoods I had lived in didn’t have even a fraction of the disabilities. 
Well, how did I know? I didn’t. In addition to more obvious disabilities, in 
cohousing I eventually knew about all the invisible disabilities — 
non-symptomatic MS, legally blind, hearing aids at an early age, fetal alcohol 
syndrome, severe peanut allergies, chronic fatigue, deaf in one ear, allergies 
to scents and pollen, disabling fears. All of these are “invisible” until you 
interact on a daily basis at the level of everyday living. 

As Katie said, when people get involved so other members can be assured that 
the person is not there expecting more than the kind of help that would be 
available to all neighbors they are welcome just as anyone else is. Are they 
looking for a community in which they will be welcomed or a therapeutic 
community like a camp designed for people with particular disabilities. Getting 
involved also means educating other people about your disabilities. We learned 
a lot about allergens because we had a member who was allergic to everything. 
She could keel over if someone pulled out a permanent magic marker. It was easy 
to be sure all markers in the CH were water based. She worked with the 
landscape team to avoid plants and trees that were common allergens. It was 
easy to do that. Putting in electric doors. Remembering to put all signs at the 
accessible height from the floor. Pull out shelves and drawers in the kitchen 
for the person with a permanent back injury.

Everyone in cohousing has to educate the group about their needs — without an 
expectation that the community can provide more than emergency help and 
accommodations in common areas.

One expectation that we struggled with came from single fathers who had adopted 
2-3  children expecting after school care and weekend activities for them. One 
complained that it was his birthday and he shouldn’t have to care for his 
children on his birthday! It took awhile.

Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC

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