Some Things You Should Know About Wheelchair Ramps

| Owen Barclay |

A well designed and constructed wheelchair ramp can be a godsend to mobility-challenged homeowners whose easy access to the outside world may be blocked by nothing more complicated than a few front steps.

That’s not to say the use of ramps is only meant for those with physical limitations. They have always been seen as great people movers. Grand Central Station, the big train terminal in New York City, was designed around vast network of wide ramp-like boulevards that let people and luggage move freely around the vast complex without resort to stairs, escalators or elevators

Ramps also typify the best in universal design because they can benefit everyone: tall, short, healthy or infirm. Home ramps can make life easier for every household member.

So what do you need to know?
Let’s start with some preliminary matters.
Which members of your family will benefit? Is the ramp specifically for someone using a cane, walker, or wheelchair? 


And do you anticipate that use may change over time?


What’s the most accessible home entrance, and what obstacles, if any, does that entrance pose?


Are we talking about a permanent ramp? Or will a smaller, portable ramp do the job?


What are your construction thoughts? Wood, aluminum, or some other building material for the ramp?


Portable or permanent? If your immediate problem is finding a solution to navigate a door threshold, raised landing or single step, a simple compact and portable entry ramp may fill the bill. These are great for doorway lips, landings; in fact, generally, any height that’s less than six inches. A little steeper hill to climb, say 2 to 4 steps. Then a better option might be a “so-called” “suitcase or folding ramp. These practical designs can extend up to 10 feet and provide a gentle incline if the rise is no more than 2 to 4 steps. And just like their smaller cousins, these ramps can be relocated to different locations to meet a mobility need.

When your preliminary evaluation points in the direction of a more permanent ramp for a steeper and/or longer flight of steps, then it’s wise to be guided by ADA standards or more locally the Access Handbook. These are required accessibility rules for public and commercial buildings only, but they offer helpful guidelines for residential use as well.

How long should the ramp be and how steep? It turns out these related questions are tied to what’s called the “rise measurement,” the distance from the top step or landing to ground level. Too steep and pushing a wheelchair up the ramp may prove impossibly difficult.  Too shallow and the ramp will be unnecessarily long. Thanks to the ADA, we have a great rule of thumb that handles this problem. The formula in a nutshell:  a ratio of one inch of rise for every 12 inches of length. For example, if you’ve got 5 steps with a total rise of 35 inches, you would need a ramp length of 35 feet. Another way to put it is every foot you go up, add another 12 feet of length to the ramp.

Here are a couple of other important standards. Ramps should be at least 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair. They should have handrails on each side which add safety and also help wheelchair users pull themselves up the incline or slow their descent. And consider a two-inch curb or other barrier at the outside edges of the ramp to prevent anyone from accidentally slipping off.

You’ll also want to consider a flat, unobstructed space or platform at the top and bottom of the ramp to allow room for wheelchair maneuverability. One last ADA guideline for longer ramps is the installation of a level platform every 30 feet to give users a place to rest.

Am I doing wood or aluminum?  Both materials have their proponents and critics. Those in the wood camp point to the aesthetics and the more permanent look of a wood ramp. Decorative elements can be incorporated into the design, and the ramp can be painted or stained to blend with the overall look of the house.  But wet wood is often slippery wood, so if this is the route you choose, make sure you apply an effective non-slip surface.  Wooden ramps also require some routine maintenance, cleaning and repainting or staining from time to time. More recently we have been doing them out of composite decking which looks very nice.

Fans of aluminum ramps point to the lower cost, ease of installation, and reduced maintenance requirements. And newer designs can be powder coated to match the look of the house. Aluminum ramps come in a variety of sizes, from the very simple for small inclines to fairly complex custom applications that include platforms and bends. Traction is less of a concern with aluminum as most ramps are manufactured with a non-slip and grooved surface.

We should mention two other materials occasionally used for home ramps: steel and concrete. Steel is a stronger and heavier metal than aluminum, which speaks to durability but can make for a more complicated installation and removal process. And unlike aluminum, steel can rust unless adequately maintained. Concrete is more often a material of choice for commercial or industrial applications, but for residential use, it offers the advantage of durability, high weight-bearing capacity, and low maintenance.

For anyone with a mobility challenge or who anticipates a future need, a home ramp is a key accessibility tool. We hope you have learned something in this short blog; it’s just a starting point, and much more information is available. Please give us a call at.604-259-9774 or write us at [email protected]

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