For wheelchair users, homes with two or three stories are especially frustrating. Either we have to live entirely on the ground floor or spend a lot of money to install some kind of lift or elevator. Some of us choose to design our own less expensive systems and pay someone to install them “under the radar” to avoid code violations, but here are four people who decided to pony up the bucks to ensure a safe, reliable and code-compliant way to get from floor to floor that, hopefully, will last a very long time. Each one chose a different kind of system based upon their unique needs.
Gabby Richards, 43, C5-6 quad since 1989, lives in Portland, Ore. She works as an attorney for Perkins Coie, a large law firm with over 900 attorneys around the world. Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, she was injured in her first weekend of college, but went on to earn a bachelor’s in journalism from Oklahoma State University. She took a job as a sports editor and a national news editor for the Washington Post, rubbing elbows with legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate scandal story that led to the downfall of President Nixon. “It was a great place to work,” she says, “but I decided to move to the Portland area in 2004 to be close to my parents.”
Richards also made a career move at that time, getting a law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School. She planned to buy a house of her own but found no single-level homes near her parents, so she purchased a lot in Portland’s Raleigh Hills district and built her home on three levels, which totaled 2,700 square feet. She wanted all bedrooms on the upper floor and most of the living space on the ground floor, including an office. The daylight basement was reserved for exercise equipment, entertainment, and a quiet space. To access the top two floors she purchased a stair-climbing incline platform lift made by Concord. To get to the basement, she had to roll outside and down a long incline to enter at floor level.
Did she have any problems with the lift? “Let me count the ways,” she says. “I’m talking about major mechanical failures that meant having to crank the lift down by hand.” The gears of the Concord lift got completely stripped. “Plus there were many battery problems.” The main power source was electrical, but the backup batteries kept going dead. Finally, in February of this year, when the gears failed a second time, stranding her in mid-staircase, she had to call the fire department to come rescue her. “There were constant problems. By this time I was very angry with the installer, and I didn’t want to have to pay another four grand to have it re-machined.”
She replaced the Concord with a Garaventa X3 incline platform lift. “This model was less complicated than the first, so there is less to go wrong,” she says. After three months, she says it still needs to be “broken in” a bit, “but I’m not concerned about mechanical problems.” The Garaventa X3 is operated entirely by batteries, so Richards has backup batteries on a trickle charger at the ready. The Garaventa runs on two 12-volt motorcycle batteries that only cost about $40 each, she says.
What’s her advice for anyone looking to buy an in-home lift for getting from floor to floor? “A stair-lift chair instead of a platform lift is a great option for some, and it costs a lot less, but for quads it doesn’t work,” she says. “I think I found my best option.”
Cost of Garaventa X3 inclined platform lift, installed: about $15,000.
Going First Class
Bob Liston heard stories about in-home lifts sometimes having problems and needing a lot of attention, so when he and spouse Marsha Katz recently decided it was time to remodel their Missoula, Mont., home to make it entirely accessible, Liston decided to have a home elevator installed. Having been a T2-3 para since 1971, Liston, now 59, figured it was time to enjoy life. He has been working most of his adult life, and that daylight basement in their ranch home was calling to him. “Who knows? I might even get a man-cave out of this. You never know,” he says.
Liston grew up in Helena, Mont., but moved to Michigan to do graduate work at Michigan State University. After a number of jobs, he and Marsha decided to move to Missoula, back to his home state, in 1998. Now, he says, he’s looking forward to retirement. He has started doing some stained glass work as a hobby in the basement, where he also has a growing wine collection. To get there, he has to go outside and around the house, which is fine in summer but not easy in the snowy Montana winters. “I have a workshop down there and I’d like to get more into stained glass and maybe make some extra money at it.”
They looked at a number of different home elevator companies and asked for info to be sent to them. A local installer responded, they started talking and eventually decided to go with a Waupaca model. They’ve started the remodeling process, working on one side of their home, expanding the master bedroom and bathroom. Eventually they will incorporate a three-walled shaft into the project and install the elevator.
Their contractor, Randy Mikels, from Northwest Elevator & Contracting in Hayden, Idaho, will install a hydraulic in-home Waupaca elevator with all the bells and whistles. “This is a top-of-the-line choice with all the options,” he says. “Hydraulically-driven elevators deliver a super-smooth ride, but they need a 7-foot deep by 5-foot wide shaftway beneath the unit. This one will also be a hands-free system. Automatic gate openers and automatic door openers. Probably 95 percent of the ones we put in are cable driven with manual-opening doors.”
Liston, who joined a wine club not long ago and is gaining an appreciation for wines from smaller “boutique” wineries, says he is looking forward to having friends over and entertaining. “I can see us relaxing in the basement in summer or sitting around a cozy fire in the winter and doing a little sipping.”
Cost of hydraulic Waupaca Excelavator Series 014 home elevator, hands-free, all automatic, installed: $28,000; cost of cable-driven model, no automatic doors or gates: $19,000-$20,000.
Coming Back from the Brink
“My whole life I have surfed,” says Mike Donohue, 71, from San Clemente, Calif. Donohue attended UCLA and went on to create a career in yacht maintenance and building surfboards. As someone who has always loved the beach life, he became interested in outrigger racing, which took him to events all over the Pacific Ocean, but mainly in Hawaii, where people come from all over the world to compete in what Donohue calls “the Super Bowl of outrigger racing.” Needless to say, he was about as fit as you could be, even in 2010, at the age of 67 when he was in training for a major race. Then something happened that not only knocked his legs out from under him, it almost killed him.
“I had an open cut on my leg and got in some dirty water,” he says. “I got a MRSA infection, and it just knocked me flat.” What followed was a two-year battle, renal failure, and extended time in an acute hospital situation, followed by more time in a skilled nursing facility, a rehab hospital, and assisted living. He spent four-and-half months having intravenous Vancomycin treatments. The infection got into his spinal cord, paralyzing his legs, and when it finally became apparent that he would be able to return to his home, he was faced with the problem of how to get upstairs, where all the bedrooms and bathrooms were.
“I looked into having an elevator installed,” he says, “but it was just too expensive. Donohue’s home has a long curving stairway. “My only real option was putting in a stair lift, which ended up costing more than expected. Why? “Because my stairway was a curving design, the whole process was a custom project. It had to be laser-measured, engineered from start to finish.”
Donohue has regained a lot of his strength and fitness, partly due to frequent transferring. He keeps two relatively inexpensive wheelchairs in the house, one at the top of the stair lift and one down, while his everyday chair, a Quickie Q7, stays in his car. “I do a heck of a lot of transferring every day,” he says.
His strength has also increased because of a new adaptive paddling sport he has just discovered. “It’s called an Ability Board,” he says — a surfboard with outriggers attached. Built into the board is a secure track and tiedown system for an all-terrain wheelchair. He has been paddling for just a few months, and he says his strength has pretty much tripled in that time. Best of all, he has full use of his home back after his two-year nightmare-battle with MRSA.
Cost of custom-engineered Stannah 260 stair lift for curving stairway: About $15,000.
Trial and Error
Jason Merrimack was a graduate student at an Ivy League university when he was suddenly hit with an unknown spinal cord condition that left him a high-functioning quadriplegic. He lost the use of both legs and one arm, and has somewhat limited use of his other hand. He considered quitting school, but decided to tough it out and get his graduate degree. It took the university a full month to find accessible living quarters for him.
By the time he graduated, it was clear that a colonial-era university city would be a difficult place to live for a wheelchair user. “Everything is at least 300 years old,” says David Merrimack, Jason’s father.
Jason decided to return to his parent’s spacious condo in southern California, but had a different accessibility problem there. All the living space is upstairs, with only a garage and a porch downstairs. At first they tried a stair-lift type of chair, but that didn’t work at all for someone in Jason’s situation. “Those kinds of stair-lift chairs are just not built for someone who needs help getting around,” says David. “With all of us helping, it still took 15 minutes to get Jason upstairs. After three trips up and down, it was evident we had to do something else.”
David had already looked at lifts, so right away they took steps to install a vertical platform lift. Their entryway was perfect for the installation. They also found the perfect ramp to go up to the porch, where you access the entryway. The lift does not require an enclosed shaft, but it does have 42-inch sides. Jason rolls in one side on the ground floor and out the other on the second floor. His trip up takes a little less than one minute, as the lift travels 10 feet per minute. So with a simple ramp and a vertical platform lift with a 103-inch rise, Jason now has complete access to the living area. His parents knew the most accessible bedroom was the master bedroom and bath, so they gave that to Jason.
The master bedroom is very large with a spacious adjoining bathroom, all accessible now. There is room for a large desk in the bedroom. “Jason has this giant desk that holds his massive computer array,” says David.
Jason has found friends online who are also interested in computer technology-related topics and equipment, and a couple of times a year they travel from all over the United States to come visit him. Jason has put his university education to good use: He is now a professor at a local college.
Cost of Mac’s Lifts EVL-103 vertical platform lift with 103-inch rise installed: about $16,000.
Prices Can Vary
No matter what your individual situation, there is a solution for how to get from floor to floor. And not everyone needs a comparable setup to those mentioned in this article. A straight staircase can be fitted with a stairglide type of chair lift for thousands of dollars less than a complex curved stairway. And vertical platform lifts with a 4-to-6-foot rise can be combined with a ramp or ramps to keep costs down. Some wheelchair users have even combined two vertical platform lifts (for instance, a 4-foot lift, a landing, and then a 6-foot lift) to minimize costs and complications.
Building code regulations vary from state to state, even city to city, so it is always best to know the rules before committing to a system. Generally speaking, indoor installations that travel from floor to floor may require more regulation (and cost more), while making use of outdoor decks or porches and installing lifts that do not need shafts are less expensive.
• Acorn, 888/211-1245; www.acornstairlifts.com/us
• Ameriglide, 800/790-1635; www.ameriglide.com
• Bruno Independent Living Aids, www.bruno.com
• Concord lifts, 800/272-6521; www.arcolamobility.com
• Garaventa, 800/663-6556; www.garaventalift.com
• Harmar, 800/833-0478; www.harmar.com
• Mac’s Lift Gate, 432/664-9299; www.macslift.com
• Mobility Lifter, 630/891-2817; mobilitylifter.com. This is a mechanized wheelchair lifter, manually controlled by an attendant.
• Stannah lifts, 800/877-8247; www.stannahstairlifts.com
• Waupaca elevators, 800/238-8739; www.waupacaelevator.com