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Many houses are not disability-friendly but with some relatively easy, low-cost adjustments you can transform your house into a home that suits the needs and requirements of everyone. Creating a handicap accessible home helps to give more independence, comfort and dignity to our loved ones while also enhancing safety and reducing the risk of accidents. When we talk about adapting a home to accommodate disabilities, the immediate thought is often installing a ramp but there are many other adaptations that can be made, from switching the type of door handles used to lowering kitchen countertops. Use our guide to discover a range of cost-effective home modifications that will help you create a disability-friendly home.
For a doorway to be wheelchair accessible it needs to be at least 32 inches wide. If there are sharp turns immediately before or after the doorway, the space will need to be wider to allow the required room to manoeuvre. If your doorway is a couple of inches too small, you may be able to make some inexpensive adjustments to widen it, for example installing offset hinges can add extra clearance by allowing the door to open clear of the doorway and removing the trim of the door can also improve the width and clearance.
Keep in mind whether the door is able to fully open or whether it blocks the passage in some way as this can impact the amount of room the person in the wheelchair has to move. If the suggested adjustments will not provide enough room, your doorway will need to be expanded (something that is more likely in older properties).
It is also important to remove doorsteps (or install a ramp – we will look at this is more detail later) and ensure there are no uneven parts of the flooring so a wheelchair or someone with mobility issues is able to get in and out unobstructed. Also consider the door thresholds as some raised thresholds take considerable effort for a wheelchair user to get over. Simply reducing the height of the threshold or replacing them with cushioned thresholds will resolve this problem.
The door handles should be lever-style and easy to operate as doorknobs are more challenging to reach and use, as well as this the door should be no heavier to open than 5lbs. The door handles should also be lowered so they can be reached by wheelchair users. Finally, if you often use a peephole for security to check who is outside, fitting a second, lower peephole that is at eye-level for a wheelchair user is a good idea too.
If you have stairs leading up to your home, a ramp is the most popular way to rectify this. There are different options available depending on whether you want a permanent structure or something that can be easily fitted and removed when necessary.
You may also decide to install a platform lift rather than a ramp, however this is an expensive solution but may be better suited if your home is on a steep incline as a ramp gradient should not be steeper than 1:12.
For stairs inside the home a stair lift or wheelchair lift can provide upstairs access. These can be costly depending on the make and model and depending on the size and layout of your home, you may find alternative options by remodelling your home so there is a bathroom and bedroom on ground level rather than the first floor.
While the bathroom is one of the most important rooms for an individual’s personal hygiene, an unmodified bathroom can be a particular hazard for people who have mobility issues. Improving the safety of a bathroom can be as simple as installing grab bars (at sitting and standing height) to provide additional support and minimise the risk of someone losing their balance or falling. Grab bars should be fitted around the toilet, bath and shower, they can be temporary or permanent fixtures and can also be fitted on hinges to fold away if necessary. A shower seat (these can be fixed or portable) may also be needed for additional support.
You may need to install an accessible shower with:
- Low or no threshold
- Non-slip floors
- Enough space (at least 60 inches in width) to allow a wheelchair to turn
- Handheld shower head.
Also consider the location of personal items and grab bars to enhance convenience when showering.
To make sure there is enough space in the bathroom, ensure the door opens outwards rather than into the bathroom. An inwards opening door can make manoeuvring, opening and closing the door very difficult. There needs to be free space of at least 60 inches for turning and space of at least 47 inches in front of the toilet. As well as space in front, the toilet should also have space to the side and the height of the toilet needs to be 17 inches to allow transfers from the wheelchair.
Lever type mixer taps are a good switch to make as these are easier to use than twist taps and provide the user with more control over the water pressure and temperature. Installing a lower wash basin with a shallow fronted bowl is also an important adjustment to make within the bathroom to suit wheelchair users.
Adapting a kitchen is essential for safety and independence, when it comes to kitchens there tends to be a lot going on in a relatively small space so a refit or redesign may be required to ensure there is enough space and the surfaces and utilities are within easy reach. When designing the kitchen consider the frequency of use and the current and future needs of all members of the household.
Quick Kitchen Adaptations
For reduced grip; switching the door, cabinet and drawer handles as well as the type of taps can help make things easier. For cabinets and drawers, D handles are easier to grab and hold. Door handles and taps should be lever style. You may also want to create your kitchen so that it is easy to slide heavy items from counter to hob and vice versa rather than the user needing to try to lift them.
For wheelchair users; if you have enough manoeuvring space (36 inch clearance), the main focus will be adapting the height of the countertops. The countertops should have rounded edges and will need to be between 28-34 inches high to make them wheelchair friendly. You may decide to only lower part of the countertop if multiple people will be using the kitchen, another solution in a shared kitchen is to use adjustable rise and fall countertops that can be adjusted to suit the person using the kitchen at that moment. As well as the height of the countertop, there must also be leg space underneath which may mean removing lower cabinets. If the countertops have restricted wheelchair access, a pull-out board should be made available as an accessible work surface instead.
You may need to reduce the height of the higher cabinets and remove some lower cabinets in order to make sure everything is within reach and disability-friendly. Height adjustable cupboards and drawers are also an option and can make it easier to reach items when needed while still having worktop space to enjoy. For added convenience, make sure that the most easily accessible cabinets contain the most used items.
The kitchen sink may also need to be lowered and will need leg space underneath for wheelchair users. Ensure there is no risk of burns to knees and legs under the sink by using heat insulation. The tap should be a mixer tap with clear hot and cold indications to benefit visually impaired people.
Your appliances should be at a height of up to 31 inches to ensure they can be easily used by someone who is in a wheelchair. The controls for the stove need to be at the front so that the person cooking does not need to reach across the stove top to turn it on or off. Ideally, the stove should have work surface on one or both sides as this will act as a support surface for hot and heavy pans. The stove should clearly indicate if the rings are hot and if an extractor fan is fitted the controls should be accessible for all. The mid-point of the oven should be at the same height as the worktops for ease of use. Finally, all display panels and markings on all appliances need to be clear and easy to understand and the controls need to be easy to manipulate and use.
There are a few additional interior adaptations that are not always remembered, these are often small, low-cost changes that can make a big difference.
- Lights – glare from lighting is a significant aspect that is often overlooked. For example, people in wheelchairs may experience glare from under cabinet lights that you may not think twice about. It is quick and easy to solve problems with glare – you can lower the position of the lights, use reduced glare bulbs or simply use alternative lighting.
- Light switches and controls – all switches and controls should be positioned at least 14 inches away from room corners, should be positioned consistently in relation to doors (making them logical and easy to locate) and should be at a height that is easy to reach. Electrical sockets should be positioned at around 35 inches above the floor.
- Furniture – the furniture you choose should be sturdy and stable so it can be used as support if necessary. Avoid furniture that is fragile or has sharp edges and choose tables that can be used by everyone (coffee tables are often too low which limits their usefulness for wheelchair users). Although soft chairs and sofas are comfortable, they can be very difficult to get up from – this may make firmness a requirement when it comes to furniture.
- Flooring – slip resistant flooring is a must. Flooring should also contract in colour to the walls and it is best to avoid bold patterns and shiny surfaces as these can cause glare and reflections which can cause confusion to people who are visually impaired. Remove thick carpets and rugs as these make moving difficult for those in wheelchairs or using walking aids.
- Windows – the opening and closing mechanism of windows should be accessible from a seated position. If this is not an option, there should be available controls to an extractor fan or some form of ventilation.
There are often grants, equipment loans and construction assistance available when it comes to adjusting your home so be sure to check with the local council or organisations in your area to see what assistance you may be eligible for. This assistance can make a huge difference as some home adaptations can be large, costly projects.
- If you are a home owner you can usually get assistance from the local authority, they will ask for an Assessment of Need (which is usually performed by an Occupational Therapist who confirms that the adaptations are essential) and will provide the relevant assistance following this assessment.
- If you live in a property that is owned by the local authority they will decide what adaptations are provided on a case by case basis (decisions are made relating to the level of need, risk to health and the individual’s wellbeing and independence). Limited budgets could delay adaptations and at times, adaptations are not possible due to the space or layout of the home which could result in other solutions being suggested, for example moving to another property.
- If you are a private tenant and you want to make adaptations you will need to have an assessment from the local authority and gain permission from your landlord for the adaptations. It is important to clarify whether or not you will return the property to its original state when you leave. If your landlord says no (although they cannot unreasonably refuse to give their consent) they must tell you in writing why they have said no.
While some of the adjustments we have mentioned are expensive and may take time to plan and organise, there are a few things you can do that are quick to implement, cost-effective and make a considerable difference to the day-to-day life of a person who is living with a disability. These adjustments include:
- Widen doorways by using offset hinges and removing the door trim
- Invest in a low-cost threshold ramp
- Install grab bars – these are particularly useful in the bathroom
- Switch door knobs to lever type handles
- Lower the door handles and light switches
- Lower fittings or replace them with remote control units e.g. thermostats
- Put single-lever taps in the kitchen and bathrooms for easy on-off, flow control and temperature control
- Switch cabinet handles to D handles
- Ensure lights are low-glare
- Remove thick carpets and rugs & ensure flooring is slip resistant
- Rearrange your kitchen and furniture for easier movement and access
Making your home disability-friendly is becoming easier and nowadays you don’t need to sacrifice design for practicality. There are many options available so you can choose what’s right for your style and space allowing you to create a beautiful home that is accessible for all. Remember that you may be eligible for some form of assistance so be sure to get in contact with your local council to find out more. Some adjustments will require patience and planning but the end result of independence, safety and comfort will be worth it.