Rebuilding New Orleans—for Everyone
By Ashley Opp Hofmann
“New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in the world,” says Kerrie Ramsdell, MS, LOTR, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center–New Orleans (LSUHSC). “But people are still struggling on so many levels. For a lot of folks here, there’s a kind of chronic hopelessness.” Even 2 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina, many residents are traumatized and overwhelmed. Many homeowners have not yet gutted their homes—a sign, Ramsdell says, of the sheer difficulty of rebuilding.
Not Just Rebuilding: LSU occupational therapy students made universal design recommendations for a New Orleans home featured on the TV show "This Old House."
Talking About Accessibility
As New Orleans homeowners continue to renovate their homes, Ramsdell has promoted integrating universal design into the construction projects of charities, neighborhood groups, individual residents, and builders. “It just made sense,” Ramsdell says. “We have historical homes that have always been inaccessible, and we could use this opportunity to make some simple design changes while houses are being renovated to enable more function and performance down the road.” Everyone knows it is much cheaper to make construction changes up front, rather than having to retrofit a completed project.
“Nobody was really talking about accessibility in the rebuilding of New Orleans,” Ramsdell says. As she and her colleagues discussed topics for LSUHSC’s annual occupational therapy summer conference—which Ramsdell leads—spotlighting the combination of rebuilding and universal design seemed perfect. The conference took place in August 2006 and brought together occupational therapy practitioners and homebuilding experts who had an interest in accessibility. AOTA President Penny Moyers, EdD, OTR/L, BCMH, FAOTA, gave the keynote speech and inspired practitioners to seize the opportunities that the rebuilding offered the profession and to understand how AOTA’s Centennial Vision could facilitate new ways of applying their skills to assist in the recovery.
As a result of the conference, Ramsdell started to receive calls from the public who had heard about the workshop and wanted universal and accessible design information. She and her students attended numerous housing summits and building shows and also provided presentations to charitable organizations and building groups on the benefits of universal design. “It snowballed,” says Ramsdell. “[Residents] started wanting more information.” As a result, Ramsdell has volunteered countless hours consulting with individuals and organizations to ensure the inclusion of universal design in rebuilding efforts.
For example, Ramsdell worked with Jericho Road, an Episcopalian group aiming to build 125 low-income houses. After Ramsdell met with them, Jericho Road changed all of the home plans to be accessible—from widening doorways and hallways to installing walk-in showers instead of bathtubs. “They looked at a more flexible design, so if someone needs to add more features later—like a ramp—they can,” Ramsdell explains.
Ramsdell also reached out to Rebuilding Together, an organization devoted to repairing and providing home modifications to low-income homeowners. Although Rebuilding Together had focused mainly on gutting homes rather than making modifications for accessibility for the first year and a half after the hurricane, Ramsdell met with Rebuilding Together’s program director who identified seven homes whose owners had physical mobility limitations. When Ramsdell’s Occupational Performance Across the Lifespan class covered the topic of aging, she sent teams of three students to each of the seven homes as part of their final project, and they gave their recommendations to Rebuilding Together. As a result, the television show This Old House did a segment related to the one of the houses.
Blending Occupational Therapy and Universal Design
Ramsdell’s practice area is actually pediatric occupational therapy, but she has become knowledgeable about universal design as a matter of necessity. As an occupational therapist, she knows that it is critical to understand how the environment contributes to performance. “Universal design blends very naturally with occupational therapy,” she says. We can look an environment, no matter what area of practice we’re working in, and understand how the tasks or barriers to the tasks contribute to occupational performance.”
New Orleans needs occupational therapy practitioners to apply their unique set of skills to the rebuilding efforts. “Occupational therapy practitioners are so misunderstood, yet they are essential in this realm of recovery,” Ramsdell says. “A lot of people don’t understand human functioning across the lifespan and the disabling conditions that affect it. We’re well-positioned in circumstances like these because we understand the physical, emotional, and psychological issues that can compromise functioning, and we can understand the dynamic changes of individuals related to their home or community environments.”
The next generation of occupational therapists just may drive future rebuilding efforts. LSUHSC has a vocal and active group of occupational therapy students who participate in many of the projects that Ramsdell consults with. The entire second-year class of students raised enough funds for all of them to attend AOTA’s 2008 Annual Conference & Expo in Long Beach. Their goal? To tell others about the needs and opportunities in New Orleans.
Ramsdell wants occupational therapy practitioners to consider coming to New Orleans to volunteer. “We’re a city like no other,” she says, “This is an amazing opportunity to show how occupational therapy can affect rebuilding and recovery, and move us towards our Centennial Vision.”
Occupational therapy practitioners who are interested in volunteering in New Orleans can contact Ramsdell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Opp Hofmann is AOTA’s senior staff writer.