transformation month

How a Life-Changing Accident Forced Me To Confront Tiny Houses’ Accessibility Problem

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Five years ago, my boyfriend (now husband) and I built a tiny house on wheels. It was just eight feet by 25 feet, but we lived in it off the grid in rural Kentucky. I didn’t have much experience before then with impact drills, screws, or 2x4s, but once I started building, I found a new love for a world of creating architectural spaces with raw materials. When I was ready to leave Kentucky to return to South Dakota, I built and lived in an even smaller space. I affectionately called it my Tiny Studio because I’m an artist and because it was a pun—it was a one room space, similar to an apartment studio, except that it was only eight feet by 10 feet. I moved it into my friend’s backyard. 

Using my construction skills, I accepted a house building job with Habitat for Humanity. On the weekends, I continued solving issues with my tiny studio—plumbing, electricity, and heating. I still loved having a space that I had entirely designed. Even though concerned relatives and neighbors thought I was ridiculous for living in it when the temperature fell to -15 degrees, I had a steely determination to keep living in my little nest.

And then it hit me. 

Not a revelation, but a giant telehandler—a 22,000-pound piece of machinery. On a Tuesday in August, I was holding the guide rope while the telehandler lifted the rafters onto the second story of the Habitat house. It had rained hard that day, and the ground had turned into thick slippery clay, but we decided to keep going with the job. Suddenly, the machine tipped in the mud and fell onto me—making my hard hat fly, cutting my femoral artery, pulverizing my right leg, cracking my spine in half, and compressing my spinal cord.

Credit: Leah Nixon Fitzgerald

I don’t remember the accident, but I do remember the month I spent clawing my way through the ICU, and rehab for the next six. Reality started to sink in now that my right leg had been amputated and I was paralyzed from the armpits down. I wouldn’t be building any more houses, tiny or not. 

And where would I live?

I couldn’t move back into my 100 square foot tiny studio. It suddenly became crystal clear how inaccessible tiny homes are—or, at least, mine was. It was too small to turn around a wheelchair in, and my unconventional futon/couch would be impossible to drag out every night. With a spinal cord injury, body temperature regulation can be harder, too—so those -15F degree nights would be totally out of the question.

I had been viewing the world, my life, and my home from a pretty ableist point of view. Drive-thrus were no longer just because people were lazy. Ramps and elevators suddenly were quite necessary. And the tiny house life? I would need somewhere to live, and it couldn’t be in my Tiny Studio.    

Credit: Leah Nixon Fitzgerald

My family and I eventually decided that I would buy a new house and modify it. Since I could no longer move around the way I used to, it couldn’t be a tiny house. The accident was a worker’s comp case, so insurance would pay for modifications in only one house in my lifetime. I figured I might as well do it now. While my mom kept me company as I was in Denver for rehab, my dad and aunt looked at houses back in my hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota. I had to take their word and buy one, sight unseen. Would it be accessible for my new way of moving around the world? It was far from a guarantee.

After a few weeks, we found it: A 1940s ranch with gorgeous wood floors and cute little built-ins, as well as newly-replaced windows and a new furnace. There were a few issues of accessibility, but ones that could be changed to accommodate my new life in a wheelchair. And the location? A dream! It just happened to be my favorite neighborhood—historic architecture, with good sidewalks, friendly neighbors, and (now) central to all my medical appointments. 

The renovations started early this summer, and in the meantime, I’ve been living with my aunt and uncle. Even though their house is more or less wheelchair accessible, it still isn’t really designed for a person with mobility issues. My eyes have been opened to the basic ways that many standard-issue homes, not just tiny homes, fail to accommodate people who get around on anything but two legs. I have to poop into a five gallon bucket, since my commode chair can’t fit in their bathroom. The kitchen doesn’t easily accommodate my wheelchair, either: the sink, stove, and counters are tough to access, since I can’t pull underneath.

But my years spent living the tiny house life prepared me for this trial. Our house was off the grid, so I was used to going to the bathroom in an outhouse, dealing with the inconvenience of heating with a wood stove, and cooking in an ultra-small kitchen. Unknowingly, I had been preparing myself for my future life of inconvenient adaptations. 

As much as I loved living in a tiny house, I’m excited to have a bigger, more conventional one. I’m looking forward to plumbing that we don’t need to worry about so much and reliable electricity. In my mind, I see my husband tinkering at our turn-of-the-century piano (something space—or time!—didn’t allow for before), and our dogs scampering the length of the long living room. On our patio, I can picture a container garden full of tomatoes and basil with which I prepare Caprese salad in my newly accessible kitchen. 

I desperately wish I could be helping remodel the new house by busting out tile, removing old cupboards, and framing up new walls. But my new body doesn’t allow this. What it does do is allow me to use my creative brain to redesign spaces and my skilled hands to illustrate the rooms I’m imagining. Someday, hopefully soon, I’ll be living in a house where I can roll into the kitchen, make myself a fresh cup of coffee, and get cracking on my computer, helping to design spaces—maybe even tiny ones—for other people who need a place to live. 

Leah Nixon Fitzgerald is an illustrator and co-owner of the stationery business Tiny and Snail. You can follow her journey creating her dream accessible home on Instagram.