“Before my injury I didn’t cry in my beer too much if I didn’t get into grad school or my girlfriend left me. There was always another chance. Now my perspective has changed. I was the guy on the plane that flew into the mountain. There’s no Mulligan on this one. I’m lucky to have use of my hands and a wonderful wife.”
Brian McMillan is dexterous and Donna is a wonderful wife. But when Brian’s motorcycle skidded off a twisty road in Eureka Springs, Arkansas eighteen years ago, crushing his T5 vertebrate and paralyzing him below the chest, one other thing survived intact: his upbeat attitude and positive outlook.
After months of rehab the couple retrofitted their Kansas City loft to accommodate Brian’s capabilities. Donna, who walked away from the accident with a scraped knee, continued working as a nurse. Brian’s boss at a local development firm told him, “FDR was able to fight a war from a wheelchair. You ought to be able to do this job.” Brian stayed on for eight years after his accident.
“Grief is the adaptation to loss. I had no way to measure this level of sadness. The overwhelming sadness eventually got shorter, then intermittent, and then it fell away.”
Ten years ago Donna and Brian decided to build a house that optimizes his independence. He thought through every aspect of his ability and explored accessible design far beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Donna and Brian built a 2600 square foot, two-story house in a historic neighborhood near downtown Kansas City. The process included commission approvals and uncooperative neighbors as well as accessibility issues. The result is a home of striking aesthetics that also happens to let a middle-aged guy eighteen years in a wheelchair lead a very independent life.
The house is a series of spaces articulated by furnishings rather than walls. The first floor entry / living / kitchen / dining space pivots around the garage in an implied curve that provides light from multiple directions and views to the street and rear garden. Toward the back is a large bathroom and guest bedroom that can accommodate Brian if a power outage disables the elevator.
Upstairs is one large space: study, TV room, sleeping area and outdoor deck, along with a huge bathroom with separate shower and tub. The most interesting space, to me, is wrapped behind the bathroom: an ample alcove with a platform futon in the middle of the main wall. Brian can transfer from chair to platform to dress or switch to his shower chair. The flanking walls have clothes in drawers and hangers, and a front-loading washer/dryer. This space is so simple and well conceived it hardly seems designed at all. Yet it enables Brian to perform all of his regular activities without a care attendant.
Brian likes to share his house and what he’s learned with others, through his website, www.theaccessiblelife.com, outreach to spinal chord victims he meets around Kansas City, and a spread in Deb Pierce’s book, The Accessible House. He is a terrific resource for any mobility-impaired person. Not just because of what he’s built, but also because he is so open about the details of his life. I’ve designed hundreds of ‘accessible’ spaces in my career, but never really understood toileting until Brian explained his process in detail.
“The mobility impaired population is only going to grow. I got here early due to my accident. Ten thousand people turn 65 every day. They have been coddled since they were born. They will want good design.”
Brian wants to increase his involvement in furthering accessible design through consultation and invention. He’s prototyped a raised toilet seat that provides access to full cleaning without having to shift weight or balance. He also does speaking engagements. “My message is to design places where mobility impaired people can integrate seamlessly.”
Brian’s been in AA for over thirty years. The discipline it took him to give up alcohol has helped him persevere the grind of being partially able. He has no control over the lower half of his body, but keeps the upper half in exquisite condition. That helps him execute his favorite AA motto: “I want to do the next right thing.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I have no fear of dying. My accident has aged me. I have an old body. If I had died, I was at the top of my game. I had this great wife, nice life. If I had died it would have been okay. But I didn’t die, so tomorrow I’m going to work out and do wind sprints and improve my tennis game and live more.”