Helping people in wheelchairs to help themselves

Michael Leonard reaches over the top of the stove in the kitchen of his Whitman home to demonstrate the inefficiency of the unit for a person using a wheelchair. The space will soon be transformed into a more functional space using Leonard's designs. (Photo by CHRIS MEYER/THE ENTERPRISE)

By Mary Julius, Enterprise staff writer

WHITMAN - Michael Leonard of Whitman may have a degree in mechanical engineering, but he faces a challenge every time he carries a boiling pot of spaghetti from the stove to the sink in his wheelchair.

"Boiling water is one thing that scares me," said Leonard, 38, who has used a wheelchair since breaking his back in a skiing accident 22 years ago. The accident left Leonard with a balance problem caused by a lack of stomach muscles. "Right now I have to move 10 to 12 feet from the rangetop to the sink to pour out boiling water from spaghetti. When you're not in balance, that's a big safety problem."

For Leonard, who moved into his home on Raynor Avenue in June, many features of the 1920s bungalow are not user-friendly for someone in a wheelchair. From maneuvering through narrow doorways and past sharp corners to getting at items in out-of-reach cabinets, kitchen chores can be a daily struggle.

But that will soon change, thanks to a zero-interest, $25,000 loan Leonard is about to receive from the state's Home-Modification Loan Program. He will also spend about $15,000 of his own money to complete the needed work.

"I am about to gut my kitchen and make it wheelchair accessible," Leonard said. "It will make it possible for me to do what I need to do. It costs a lot to buy a house, but it's tough when you buy a house and then have to spend more to redo a kitchen to make it accessible."

Since it began in 1999, the program has allowed about 240 families across the state to modify their homes with improvements such as wheelchair ramps, chair lifts, elevators and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and kitchens and continue to live independently in their community.

For 81-year-old Sadie Rotondo of Rockland, the loan program enabled her to put in a chair lift after she fell down a flight of stairs in September 2000, had a concussion and fractured three vertebrae and her knee. She received a $6,500 no-interest loan.

"I couldn't have gotten out otherwise," Rotondo said. "Now I can go to the Rockland Council on Aging ever day for lunch."

Carl Tomolillo, 46, was able to modify his family's Rockland home after he fell and snapped his spinal column carrying Christmas presents in November 2000 and was injured again when he and his wife, Liz, were in a hit-and-run accident involving a drunken driver. Tomolillo received a $25,000, no interest loan.

"The loan was a lifesaver," said Tomolillo, who was able to add a wheelchair ramp, widen doorways and modify the bathroom.

"What a difference it makes in the quality of everyday life," said Anne Lane, the program manager for the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, which administers the loan program with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.

The loan allows many people with disabilities to stay at home or to come home sooner from rehabilitation centers or nursing homes, she said.

"It provides loans of up to $25,000 at 0 percent or 3 percent interest, depending on income," Lane said. "Anybody who has a disability or has a family member with a disability is eligible to apply for the loan."

To date, the program has approved more than $6.5 million in loans, which don't have to be paid back until the property is sold or on the death of the beneficiary, she said.

"Then the money gets paid back and we can use it again," she said. "It's a revolving fund."

For information on the program in the local area, residents can call Joan Maney at South Shore Housing and Development Corporation in Kingston at 617-422-4434, or Lane at 781-925-4434. Information is also available on the Web site
www.state.ma.us/mrc/agency/homemods.htm.
"We are serving people on a first come, first served basis, and there is a waiting list," Lane said. "People who are interested need to apply."

Leonard, who worked as a kitchen designer for five years prior to becoming a math teacher last year at South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover, did the design work for the kitchen he will have installed.

"A lot of people design kitchens, but the question is if they really understand the needs of a person in a wheelchair," Leonard said. "When you're talking about a disability, whether it's paralysis, which is mine, or multiple sclerosis, every disability is extremely different and the need for the designer to understand those needs is huge."

Leonard, who would like to help others with disabilities design workable kitchens, will be knocking out walls to make his kitchen more open, rerouting stairs, and lowering the height of the sink, stove and countertops by several inches. He will also install an island with a gas cooktop that is open below to accommodate his wheelchair, and has knobs on the front so he doesn't have to reach to the back of the stove as he does now. The area below the sink will also be open to allow room for his wheelchair.

"People designing kitchens can't really understand our need for balance, reach and space," Leonard said.

Leonard will also be creating a "work triangle" from the refrigerator to the island stovetop and to the sink, which will lessen the amount of distance he needs to move around the kitchen. He will also install countertops at the proper height and in important spots so he can set items down and keep his balance.

For Leonard, who expects to start work on his kitchen next month and complete it in about two months, the loan will help him afford many much-needed changes.

"This is not low-income housing, and myself and people in situations like this are in a financial need if we are going to buy a house because of the modifications that need to take place," Leonard said. "This is not a handout, it's a loan, but it has made it possible for me to do what I need to do."

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