6 Housing Choices for Adults With Disabilities Living Independently

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Everyone has the right to try and live independently despite their physical or intellectual disabilities. As the family member of someone who struggles with a limitation, you may be reluctant to allow your loved one to try independent living and accept the possibility of failure. 

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As a parent, you want to protect your adult child while still empowering them to do everything that they can for themselves. It is a delicate balancing act that is based on multiple factors. It is possible and might be advisable to start with a more supportive environment and then slowly transition to more independent living.

How Do You Know If an Adult With an Intellectual or Physical Disability Can Live Independently?

Knowing whether an adult with an intellectual or physical disability can live independently can be a tough one to decide. The choice may be different for an adult with an intellectual disability than for someone with a physical disability. Let’s look at each one separately. Of course, you or your adult child could have both an intellectual and physical disability.

Intellectual disability

The approach to anyone with an intellectual disability should be one of maximizing strengths and potential. The first step is to ask the person if they want to try living independently. If they don’t, then you may have to accept that.

If the adult wants to live independently but is currently struggling with independent skills, it will be more challenging to decide. Signs that an adult with an intellectual disability can live independently:

  • They can respond during an emergency. An example will be if there is a fire or medical emergency, your loved one can dial 911 and request help.
  • They can take care of their ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) with either no or minimal assistance. ADLs include dressing each day, bathing, getting groceries, cooking, cleaning, and managing medications.
  • They can communicate their needs or concerns. Someone living independently can very easily encounter harassment or other problems that need to be communicated so that someone can intervene. 
  • They look forward to the challenges of independent living and understand that there might be stress.

Physical disability

Physical disabilities are so varied it is hard to group them into one category. Individuals with more pronounced physical limitations can live independently with the right accessibility features and equipment. Paraplegic individuals live independently but must have a physical environment that makes that possible. Signs that a person with a physical disability can live independently:

  • They have the desire and understand the immense work that will be required to function independently. Some will have been working towards functioning more independently by learning to use a motorized wheelchair and other equipment.
  • They can perform their ADLs with no or minimal assistance, as mentioned above. 
  • If a person is confined to a wheelchair, they know how to vacate their building during an emergency.
  • They can call for help when they need it.
  • They have a way to access transportation to medical appointments and other routine trips to the store.

You may not know if your loved one can live independently until they try. It can be helpful to be very supportive during the process and if necessary, provide some in-home support services during the transition. Just because someone is getting help doesn’t mean they aren’t independent.

Common Housing Options for Adults With Disabilities

There are several housing options for adults with disabilities, and some have more support than others. View the idea of independence as a continuum that can encompass several different levels of individual ability. People deserve respect for what they are able to do for themselves. 

1. Living at home or in an accessory dwelling unit (ADU)

Living at home with parents or other family members is an option that many people choose because it is convenient. However, if caregiving duties become too time-consuming and stressful, other options might be better.

It is possible for an adult with a disability to be an independent part of the household if that is the expectation. One way to achieve this is with an ADU. ADUs are becoming more popular due to their accessibility to family support while providing privacy and independence.

An ADU is a smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone single-family home. There are different zoning laws in each locality, so you will need to check whether they are permissible.

2. Group homes

Group homes are usually smaller residential homes or buildings for aging adults or younger folks with specific disabilities. Group homes also go by the name board and care and residential care homes. Although group homes are not entirely independent, they offer a supportive home for people who don’t want to live with parents or relatives.

There are many support services such as meals, medication management, transportation, and activities, but residents usually have a private room. A group home’s advantages are the smaller, more intimate, and homelike atmosphere and the opportunity to interact with peers. 

3. Home sharing

Home sharing is when someone owns a home and wants to rent out a room(s) for additional income. Home sharing is suitable for individuals who want other people around and like the idea of a home atmosphere. Meals are usually shared, and sometimes bathrooms are as well. So, home-sharing is truly independent, and some people may need home care or other family caregivers to provide some assistance. 

4. Section 8 housing

Section 8 is a federal program providing rental assistance to low-income individuals. Many people who are disabled have limited income or can’t work but would like to live independently in a home or apartment. Adults must pay a percentage of their income towards a rental unit in the private market. 

Section 8 vouchers allow people with mild or moderate special needs and low incomes to live on their own in the community.  It can take years to obtain a Section 8 voucher and, once you get it, there may not be any available Section 8 units for rent in the community.  Section 8 housing is also not appropriate for people with more complex needs who can't live independently without some in-home care or other support.

5. Assisted living

Assisted living is not independent living, but it is possible to be very independent in an assisted living community. There are a few assisted living communities for younger adults. Most have criteria for minimum age, which is usually 55 years of age. But, people with intellectual and physical disabilities get old just like everyone else, and assisted living can be a nice option in that there is a foundation of support with respect for privacy.

Assisted living allows someone to add on care as needed-for an additional cost. The foundation of support in most assisted living communities is all meals, housekeeping, transportation, medication management (some facilities will charge based on the number of medications you take), and activities. 

6. Cohousing

Cohousing is appealing to many people because it offers both community and privacy. Some co-housing communities are separate houses or cottages on a shared piece of property. Meals, chores, and decision-making are shared. This type of co-housing can be expensive, and there aren’t any medical support services on site.

Another type of co-housing that might be a possibility and more affordable is co-housing in larger high-rise buildings with multiple units. A good example of this type of co-housing is Phoenix, where tenants can rent a bedroom and live in a shared apartment and pay only their share of rent and utilities. The advantage of this setup is the affordability, accessibility features, and intergenerational mix of people.

What Questions Should You Ask Yourself When Searching for Housing for an Adult With a Disability?

One way to approach questions you will want to ask when searching for housing for an adult with a disability is to make a list of concerns. Identify what you or your loved one needs help with.  Each option will have different levels of support, so you may have to supplement with other care.

What support is available?

Support can be in the form of aide service, case management or referral to resources. Ask about what services are included in the housing cost and which ones you have to pay for. If you need more support, will that jeopardize your housing?

Is transportation available?

Transportation is freedom. To be independent, you have to get to doctor’s appointments, shop, and access other services. Even if transportation is available, does it have a lift? How does someone schedule the transport, and is there a fee?

Are there accessibility features?

Accessibility might seem obvious but can be easily overlooked. Ask to see the room or apartment you are considering. Are there grab bars in the bathroom? Is the shower a walk-in? What about elevator access? If you need additional features, can you add those?

Are the staff trained to work with people with disabilities?

In group home and assisted living options, ask about staff training and competence in dealing with physical and intellectual disabilities. 

What are the emergency and security features?

Emergency and security features are vital for vulnerable populations. Ask about emergency response availability. Also, is the building secure? And if so, what are the systems for admission to the building? If you or your loved one cannot use emergency and security features, that could present a problem.

Housing Choices for Adults With Disabilities Living Independently

The idea of independence is ingrained in our culture. The stigma that people with disabilities live with is complicated by their desire to live independently but needing some support to do so. Treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve will help them find the best independent housing for their situation.

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