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Getting Your Home Wheelchair Ready…Makes Life Better For Everyone

We are frequently asked to design and implement home modifications for wheelchair clients and their families. Sometimes, the disability is temporary like an accident or a recent surgery. More often, the need stems from a more chronic condition or the effects of aging. Modifications to ease home accessibility can touch every room of the house as we seek to create obstruction-free environments that allow natural flow. What used to surprise us( but no longer does) is that the result often turns out to benefit every family member. So pay attention to these “wheelchair accessible” lessons: they have broad application.

At the Entrance:  Here, we’re talking about a no-step entry with a low threshold that shouldn’t exceed ½ inch. If a ground-level entrance isn’t doable, an aluminum or wooden ramp wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair should solve the problem. A few quick ramp tips: don’t exceed a 1 to 12 slope ratio and always include handrails and a non-slip surface.

Wide entrances and doors:  Standard wheelchairs range from 24″ to 27″ in width. So doorways need to be at least 32 inches wide or more in hallways if turning the wheelchair is an issue. Here, openings need to be at least 36 “. If widening the door frame is too difficult, you might consider using offset door hinges. These can expand door width by several inches, often enough to do the trick. Another challenge is doors that swing open on the pull or “wheelchair” side. A couple of solutions: consider automatic door openers,(can be pricey) or pocket doors that slide into the wall. Reversing how a door opens is sometimes a possibility.

Floor-level flow:  The watch phrase here is ease of movement.  Remove thick carpets and rugs that are difficult to move over. Tile or hardwood floors are a great replacement, and low-pile carpeting can also work. Thresholds between rooms can also impede flow; short rubber ramps provide an easy solution.

Kitchen access: A couple of points here: Room accessibility(including kitchens) starts with a healthy portion of obstruction-free floor space; think an open area with a 5-foot diameter to allow turning room for a wheelchair. And then, lower some countertops from the standard 36″ to 30″ and remove a few under-counter cabinets to make room for wheelchair users to access the space. Don’t stop at counters; install lower and shallower sinks for easy reach and, of course, a single faucet is better than two. Move electrical switches for disposals, lights, and exhaust fans to the front of the counter and give some thought to kitchen appliances: side by side refrigerators, for example, are much easier to reach into.

And the bathroom: Lots of the same rules apply; bathroom doors need to be 32″ wide for a straight approach, even wider if the wheelchair users need to turn into the bathroom from a hallway. Sinks need to be hung from the wall to allow wheelchair access, and showers and tubs need to be modified both for safety and convenience.

Don’t forget the toilet: The standard 17″ inch toilet fixture is too low for wheelchair users; go with a higher 19″ ADA compliant toilet or install a raised toilet seat. Did we mention grab bars? At a minimum, locate them near the toilet and, and the bathing areas(shower or tub).

Declutter:  Maintain clear paths for wheelchair users. Create storage places for shoes, toys, or other clutter.  And make sure there’s lots of wheelchair turn-around space in every room of the house.

Outside the home:  Hard-surface pathways leading up to the front door from the street and garage should be the first consideration; pushing a wheelchair through grass or soil is very difficult. Keep all grades manageable and use ramps to avoid steps or other elevation obstacles.

All the above suggestions and ideas are just subsets of the bigger principle of universal design, an approach to home accessibility solutions that work for all household members. For example, wider hallways and low or zero-step entrances may seem targeted for wheelchair users but are also useful when pushing a baby carriage or carrying packages. We’re certified aging-in-place contractors and designers. We focus on just these sorts of multi-accessible applications. That is, we believe that aging-in-place is not just for the aged; the whole family benefits when Universal Design is the guiding principle of home modifications. We’d love your comments so please give us a call or email us @[email protected]