VANCOUVER, Wash. — Yung Ting Engelbrecht lounges on his couch watching “Barney” on a tablet. He can scan QR codes taped to the wall that connect him to some of his favorite YouTube videos.

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” asks his mom, Jacqueline Noel.

“New house,” Yung Ting says.

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His 288-square-foot accessory dwelling unit is attached to his parents’ house in east Vancouver. Even though he’s lived in the unit for a little over a year, Yung Ting still calls his place “new house” and his parents’ “big house.”

When people initially heard that Yung Ting was getting his own place, many were taken aback. The 23-year-old has autism and Down syndrome.

The rising cost of housing prevents many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from securing housing and the independence that comes with it. Many have part-time work, if any work at all, or receive benefit checks that don’t stretch far in today’s housing market. Yung Ting is unemployed.

Building an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, may be one of the more creative options out there for parents and care providers grappling with what type of housing could balance freedom with support. It’s not just about having a place to live, it’s also about improving the overall quality of life, said Jennifer Matheis, the housing resource and training coordinator at The Arc of Southwest Washington.

“I think it gives everybody more hope and excitement about the possibilities,” Matheis says.

Matheis, who has worked at The Arc for about a year, doesn’t know any other families who have gone this route. Many opt for a roommate situation.

A better life

Yung Ting was born in Hong Kong and adopted in 1994 by Noel and Ted Engelbrecht when he was 1. His three nonbiological siblings met him in an orphanage while doing a service learning project abroad.

The family lived in Vietnam for 15 years before moving to Vancouver to make a better life for Yung Ting. Ted Engelbrecht is American, but was born and raised in India. Noel is from Belgium.

“We left because of him, because we started thinking about long term. He was almost done with high school, and we knew we would not be around forever. In Vietnam, they don’t have much at all for people with special needs,” Noel said.

At his international school, he was the only student with a developmental disability.

It was easier for the couple to get jobs in America than in Europe, and they have family in Seattle. Ted Engelbrecht teaches theology at Concordia University in Portland, and Noel is a paraeducator at Evergreen High School, which Yung Ting attended.

“We were told that Vancouver was much better for special education than Portland,” Noel said.

The idea to build an ADU for Yung Ting came about when his parents started exploring housing options. Yung Ting doesn’t like to be around people all of the time, so a roommate situation didn’t seem ideal, and apartments were expensive. Initially, they wanted to construct a tiny house on wheels that could be moved, but they couldn’t secure the permits to do that.

So, they turned to builder Jay Lepisto. He had built a gazebo for the family and they wanted an ADU that visually tied the property together. Lepisto mostly does remodeling projects through his business Finnesse Craftsman Inc.

“I had never done anything like that before,” he said. “It was fun to design everything on a small scale.”

The ADU was built in what used to be a vegetable garden on the side of the house. It has built-in storage, its own bathroom lined with a colorful mosaic of tiles from Habitat for Humanity (where Yung Ting volunteers) and easy-to-clean plank floors. There’s a combination washer and dryer, a mini-fridge and a microwave, but no stove or oven. A covered front porch allows him to wait out of the rain for the C-Van bus.

When it was all finished, Yung Ting didn’t need to transition to life in the ADU. He just gathered his stuff and moved.

“We were also debating whether or not to have direct access to the house. We decided, no, we want him to be independent. He’s got his own entrance and there’s no connection,” Noel said. “I feel better having him in a smaller space than alone in a big house.”

Through his back door he can walk across the deck and into his parents’ kitchen for dinner. After everyone says good night, he locks the back door and closes the curtains — signaling that he’s done hanging out with his parents for the day.

Privacy and safety

The family uses a mix of high- and low-tech devices to make the living situation work. They’re trying to find the right balance between privacy, independence and safety.

To access his house, he has to type in a key code rather than use a key. Ringing the doorbell activates a camera that’s also activated by a motion sensor. So, sometimes, Yung Ting will ring his own doorbell to talk to his mom through the camera.

Noel also uses a phone application that allows her to call Yung Ting and that automatically picks up and connects to a speaker system in his house. They used the technology for the first time when Noel had to take Ted Engelbrecht to the airport one morning and wouldn’t be home to wake up Yung Ting. So, she told her daughter to use the audio system to call him and get him ready for the day.

When Noel arrived home, Yung Ting was eating breakfast, dressed and ready to go, but he had a weird look on his face. “Chloe talk,” he said over and over. Noel said she feels bad that he got spooked.

“Maybe some much higher-functioning kid would not like this at all. They would realize they’re being watched,” Noel said. “But I think in a way it’s reassuring for him.”

Reminder Rosie, an alarm clock designed for people with memory issues, reminds Yung Ting about tasks and appointments; it will repeat until he turns it off. And pictures on his calendar also tell him what he’s doing each day.

By his bed, there are QR codes that when scanned with his tablet lead to prayers his family recorded, so he can follow along and say his prayers before bed. Other apps on his tablet tell him how much time he has left until his next activity. There are soap and shampoo dispensers, and a device that puts toothpaste on his toothbrush. Without it, toothpaste would get all over the counter.

The ADU and all of the furniture, appliances and technology inside cost about $50,000. The cost was “very doable” for the pair of educators. They took out a loan to pay for it all, but the payments on the loan are less than renting an apartment would be. If Yung Ting hadn’t wanted to move right in, the ADU could’ve been rented out for a while to help pay for it.

“It was not Yung Ting who requested to move out. He was very happy with us. We realized that he was ready,” Noel said.

Lepisto said it would be cheaper to convert part of an existing home into an ADU — to make a home within a home.

Independence

At first, Noel would virtually check in on Yung Ting all the time while she was away from home.

“I’ve learned a lot because I’ve learned to let go,” Noel said. “He can call me if there’s a problem, and we’ve got good neighbors.”

She’s reluctant to hand off access to the cameras to anybody else. It’s his private space, even if he still needs some assistance day-to-day.

“How do you make people more independent, not more dependent? Too often our answer is, ‘Oh, we feel sorry for them,’ but you actually end up breeding dependency rather than independency,” Ted Engelbrecht said.

Yung Ting makes his breakfast every day, gets showered and dressed, hops on the bus and heads to his activities, whether it’s a cooking class, bowling or volunteer work. He knows how to follow a schedule and contact his parents, if needed. Noel and Engelbrecht said they would love to see Yung Ting get a job and think he can do more than people may expect.

“I’m not sure yet what kind of job he would get, but I’m still hoping he’ll get one,” Noel said, adding that everyone needs a purpose in life. “He’s learned things that he would never do when he was living with us.”

For now, she said, she likes the increased freedom everyone gets to enjoy. Being more in the background of Yung Ting’s life gives the couple time to just be husband and wife again.

© 2017 The Columbian
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