Renovating For The Needs Of The Disabled

Monday, November 14, 2011

Being able to jump in the shower in the morning is something most of us take for granted. Contractor Ronny Wiskin didn't think about it either - until he was asked to renovate his grandmother's bathroom.

Terrified of falling, she had been taking sponge baths for several years rather than climbing into the tub in her home. She hadn't wanted to say anything to her family.

That project, installing a barrier-free tiled shower with walk-in access, changed the direction of Wiskin's business. At the time, he was in the high-end renovation and painting field, but wasn't completely satisfied with the work. "It's kind of crowded," says Wiskin, 35, who has been in the home decor and construction business for himself since he was a teenager.

His grandmother's plight made him realize there might be a niche for him as a different kind of contractor. "I did some research and found there was a real hole in the renovation market when it came to meeting the needs of people with disabilities," he said.

Since Wiskin started his company, ReliAble Independent Living Services, in 2004, he has worked on more than 300 homes. With the population aging, there are likely to be far more people with mobility problems due to illness or injury. The Ontario government estimates the number of seniors in the province could almost double to 3.5 million in the next 20 to 25 years.

Wiskin prefers to call his work a modification rather than a renovation because his goal is to improve the home for the owner's new demands instead of rebuilding. For example, rather than build new kitchen cabinets, Wiskin and his installers will take the existing ones and add a hydraulic device to raise and lower them. Even simple things such as changing door hardware can make a huge difference to people who find their homes becoming prisons when they start relying on walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

"Sometimes an opening is just a couple of inches too small for a wheelchair," Wiskin says. "Instead of a lot of costly work, what we'll do is install an offset hinge. " The most common modifications include adding wheelchair ramps, widening entries and converting bathrooms by replacing tubs with special showers, with the average job priced between $8,000 and $10,000.

He also offers devices to raise and lower cabinets, using existing cupboards.

The idea behind universal or barrier-free design is to create a living space accessible to all individuals with disabilities ranging from vision impairment to restricted mobility.

That means the average home with its narrow hallways, front steps and impossible-to-reach cupboards usually needs some adjustments. Changes could include improving lighting, installing ramps, adding wall-mounted vanities, lowering light switches and supplying easy-to-use faucets.

Wiskin's business has grown significantly this year and he is poised to expand to manufacturing and franchising. His staff has expanded from two installers to seven in two new locations (Barrie and Ottawa) in addition to the company's headquarters in the Toronto Business Development Centre on King St. W.

His team does everything from widening a doorway or installing an elevator to a full-scale renovation. Another common modification is converting a main floor of a home for a disabled person who can no longer manage stairs.

Now that the business model is proven, Wiskin and his advisers are preparing to franchise the concept later this year. Because he imports specialty products from Europe and the U.S., such as electric door openers and shower units, he believes there is a manufacturing opportunity as well.

"We have some ideas we're kicking around but that would be a big step for us," he says. Wiskin adds that he also sells the components to the do-it-yourself market, another potential growth area.

And Wiskin spends a lot of time networking, raising awareness and educating potential clients. He has made sure his company name is known by local Community Care Access Centres, and he has an attractive logo and brochures.

His mother, Susan, who is also his office manager and business partner, makes presentations at seniors' centres on fall prevention, and the company sponsors a radio show. Referrals are still the most valuable kind of marketing, he says. Wiskin believes he is riding the demographic wave, but business success isn't the only bonus. "I get lots of hugs and kisses from people who haven't been able to leave their homes."

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