‘We’re So Lucky’

STEL House Changes Life For Dunkirk Family

Thanks to a sloped walkway and stair-free porch, Frank Diaz is now able to easily transport his daughter from the school bus and into their home, instead of carrying her up several stairs. Photo by Mary Heyl

DUNKIRK — Today, wheelchair-friendly ramps, push-button doors and accessible restrooms are fixtures in nearly all public places, thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires businesses and public facilities to provide reasonable access and accommodations for everyone.

But what is one to do when public accommodations that are practically taken for granted are not available where they are needed most?

The home — the place where families spend most of their time and where they should feel the most comfortable — can often be the least wheelchair-friendly environment. No one knows this better than the Soto-Diaz family, who have spent the past decade carrying their wheelchair-bound daughter, Zania, up and down flights of stairs and negotiating narrow doors and hallways in second-floor apartments. That is until recently, when the family moved into their one-story home specially designed by Southern Tier Environments for Living, Inc. (STEL) for full wheelchair accessibility.

“We never thought we’d get a handicap house — ever,” Zania’s mother, Gladys, said. “I still can’t believe it.”

Zania, 13, is the eldest of the couple’s three children, who are excited for the arrival of their new sibling in May.

“Zania was born full-term,” Gladys explained, “but when she was about six months old, we noticed that she was not developing like other children her age.” At six months old, Zania began seizing and was diagnosed with generalized epilepsy syndrome. Gladys explained that there is no known cause for the condition, and her daughter is unable to walk or speak.

The family lived in Dunkirk until 2008, when they moved to Boston, Massachusetts to be closer to medical treatment facilities. During that period, the family spent years living in second floor apartments with no elevators and, at times, steep exterior staircases. While Frank often carried his daughter in his arms, there were many times when he carried her in the heavy electric wheelchair, too.

Less than a year ago, the family moved back to Dunkirk where they soon learned that STEL was in the process of designing and constructing a completely wheelchair accessible one-story home.

“We read about the housing lottery and explained our situation,” said Gladys. “We just couldn’t believe they were making a home like this. This fall, we were chosen to live here, and we were so excited!” Shortly before New Year’s Day, the family moved into their new home — a fitting start to a brand new year.

The house, located on Doughty Street in Dunkirk, is all one level with a gradually sloped front walkway leading directly into the front door — no stairs or steps. The open floor plan features lower kitchen counters, plenty of space between fixtures, wide hallways and a cheery pink bedroom just for Zania, where she can rest comfortably. Features of a home that some take for granted have been life-changing for the family. “The bathroom is so big and easy to move around in,” said Frank. “We can take her right in the bathroom to brush her teeth. We used to have to bring the toothbrush to her.”

Gladys added: “I feel like she can spend more time with the family now because she can be in all the same rooms as us. She loves her family and is so calm and happy here.”

Frank noted how much easier it is for him to bring his daughter outside in her wheelchair when the school bus arrives to take her to BOCES. “No more stairs! Just right out the door and down the walk,” he grinned.

“We know there are many, many families deserving of a house like this. It’s really a blessing for people who can’t afford to build. We’re grateful to STEL, from top to bottom,” said Gladys.

STEL Executive Director Thomas Whitney explained, “STEL is developing five completely wheelchair-accessible homes, as well as two residences for hearing impaired and/or visually impaired individuals. Because of the older nature of the housing stock in the Dunkirk/Fredonia area, there is a great need for adapted and accessible housing such as this.”

Like other STEL units, this home will be available for purchase at the end of the 15-year compliance period.

“It adds another level of bureaucracy and complexity to the project, so most developers do not want to go through the extra expense and difficulty to comply,” Whitney said. “We at STEL feel it is important to develop a sense of ownership and community in the neighborhood, so that the residents treat the homes with pride and respect. STEL will ensure the housing is not neglected and does not fall into disrepair.”

While Whitney is pleased that the Soto-Diaz family’s application for the house was approved, he never expected the home to serve someone as young as Zania. “STEL works with many disabled veterans and adults,” he pointed out. Disabled veterans and other persons with mobility impairments have top priority when open enrollment for STEL housing begins. “But when we developed a three bedroom handicapped accessible home, I assumed it would be for a disabled adult with a family. One doesn’t often think of a 13-year-old girl in a wheelchair. But we are very pleased it is going to such a wonderful family.”

Whitney added that not only did the family’s previous residence have steps to get into the house, but Zania’s bedroom was on the second floor. “As Zania recently turned 13, it was more difficult to address her needs on a daily basis in a non-adapted house,” he said.

Moving into the home has been life-changing for the Soto-Diaz family, to say the least. “We’re so lucky and appreciative,” Frank said. “We’re blessed to be here.”

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