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Home renovation for disability puts WNY in national spotlight

With each new challenge presented by living with multiple sclerosis, Margaret Browne and her family adapted their Clarence Center home.

It had gotten to the point where Browne was sleeping in a lounge chair in the first-floor great room, relying on daughters Ashley and Amanda to bring clothes downstairs from her closet and on her husband, Jeff, to help her in the shower.

A couple of years ago, a family meeting was held to decide whether the Brownes would stay in their home of seven years or go. They voted to stay – and embarked on another project to adapt the house – for the long haul.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Margaret Browne had met Jill Eppolito, a licensed physical therapist who earned certification as an aging-in-place specialist through the National Association of Home Builders, or NAHB, and started Accessible Home Solutions, her own company.

Eppolito worked with the Brownes, an architect and a contractor on plans to raise the floor in the sunken family room to match the grade of the front entry, kitchen and home office.

They also collaborated on a 765-square-foot master suite addition on the ground floor of the approximately 2,800-square-foot home that has allowed Browne to regain her independence.

“When we moved in here, I was walking – I had a walker,” the 46-year-old mother of two said Wednesday.

Then the projects began – a stair lift to reach the second-floor bedroom, a bench incorporated into a bathroom remodel.

“Whenever we did something, it would work for a month or two, then I’d get worse,” said Browne, who was in her mid-30s when she was diagnosed with the disease of the central nervous system.

For her work in keeping Browne and family in their home, Eppolito earned a “Homes for Life” award, in the major space remodel category, from the NAHB Remodelers.

Margaret and Jeff Browne accompanied Eppolito to Chicago to accept her award earlier this month; October also is Disability Awareness Month in Erie County. “Now that it’s done, I feel like I can live life. I can be a mom and do all those things,” said Browne, who worked for 12 years as an account executive for Ingram Micro before dedicating herself to motherhood.

Planning began in December 2013 and the construction itself a few months later.

By August 2014, Margaret Browne was back sleeping in her own bed, and personally handling the routine necessities of life. She can now pick out clothes herself in the closet, where her outfits and accessories are within reach, below her husband’s.

“It really is a dream come true,” Browne said.

Universal design, which includes wider doorways and halls, was used for 90 percent of the renovation. “Good for anybody of any age, any ability,” Eppolito said. “The other 10 percent … (was) geared specifically to Margaret.”

Things such as adjusting the height of her bathroom vanity, to accommodate a wheelchair, and positioning the sink drain so that plumbing doesn’t interfere with legroom.

Easy-to-grab hardware was used on the fully opening drawers to the right of her vanity, since Browne’s strength is in her right arm. Light switches and power outlets are within easy reach.

One major feature of the remodel is a lift and ceiling track system, which begins in one corner of the bedroom, that helps Browne get in and out of bed and into the bathroom. “This allows her to really use the space herself,” Eppolito said.

The project extended into the backyard and in-ground pool, which Browne can now directly access by a concrete ramp off the addition and a swiveling lift poolside.

Though the features and finishes of the Browne project are high-end, Eppolito said many similar projects can be tackled by a handyman.

“It’s not … how much you spend. A lot of it is about understanding your needs,” Eppolito said. “Everyone’s home could be improved. It does not necessarily mean taking on a second mortgage.”