Making your Home Wheelchair Friendly

Nearly 2 million Americans living outside an institution use a wheelchair or a scooter for mobility. When addressing various ways home interiors can be modified to improve independence for people who are mobility-challenged, it is important to note the difference between two terms used frequently, especially within the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Accessibility refers to a building, a facility, or a site into which a physically-disabled person may enter. Adaptability means how flexible interior elements of the home, for example, kitchen sinks, bath and shower areas, even closets, can be modified depending on the resident’s degree of disability.

An average adult wheelchair, according to ANSI (American National Standards Institute), can be up to 50 inches long and up to 32 inches wide. The average seat is 20 inches high, and the armrests are about 30 inches from the floor. There are wheelchairs made for sport usage; the seat is slightly lower and wider than the average wheelchair. Consequently, the reach capacity above the head is lower than the average model.

The adult wheelchair requires 60 inches of space to make a 360-degree turn. A minimum of 36 inches is required for clear hallway passage, and at least 32 inches for doorways. The doorway threshold should be less than 1/4" off the floor. Where door handles must be pulled to open a door, there should be at least 18" of clear space. Door handles should be no higher than 48" from floor or ground level. They should be operable with closed fists, which is why a popular choice is a lever-type handle. If door mats are present at doorways, they should be no higher than ½-inch, and all edges should be securely fastened to the floor.

Toilet seats should be no higher than 19 inches, and bars for grabbing and lifting should be no higher than 36 inches both behind and next to the toilet. Sink rims should not exceed 34 inches high, and again, a closed fist should have no trouble turning the faucet on or off. Bathroom, and for that matter, ALL mirrors should be hung with the bottom edge at no higher than 40 inches. Bathrooms and halls must have a minimum of 36 inches width, free from all obstructions, and should include a circle, or “T” that is 5 feet in diameter to that the individual in the wheelchair is able to make a 180-degree turn. Hardwood floors are ideal but if there is carpet, it should be a low pile, tight-weave type.

Light switches and other wall-mounted controls should be no higher than 54 inches for a sideways reach; if accessed by a forward reach, controls should not exceed 48 inches in height. Table and counter tops should be between 28 and 34 inches in height. The area for knee placement should be a minimum of 27 inches in height, at least 30 inches in width, and a depth of 19 inches. 

Such modifications may add to the cost of a new home construction; according to ADA, it should add between 3 and 10 percent.

Most homes will require a ramp for access from the outside. A ramp must be at least 36 inches wide, and grade is written in this manner- 1:12, which means that for every inch of incline, or decline, there needs to be 12 inches of length. The ramp must have hand rails that do not exceed 34 inches from the ramp’s surface. The hand rails must extend at least one foot beyond the end of the ramp, and the hand rail ends must be rounded, or designed so that they curve downward and reach the floor. At every 30’ length, a flat ramp is required for a resting point. The ramp should resist weather and be covered with a material that is both non-slipping, but also does not create difficulty.

For a shower to be accessible by a wheelchair it should be no less than 3 sq. ft. and there should not be a “lip” or curb to hinder entering. In the bathroom and shower, the floor should be an anti-slip material. Safety thermostat devices should be placed on the faucet to prevent sudden, drastic water temperature changes. A hand-held shower head should be installed, and at a level and location that can be easily reached. Grab bars should be present around the entire shower interior.

Living independently includes being able to maintain, even in an emergency situation such as a sustained power outage, or hurricane, etc. If a disaster requires the person in a wheelchair to exit the home quickly, there should be more than one exit, especially if one becomes obstructed. Emergency phone numbers should be kept close to telephones; make arrangements for either neighbors or relatives to check in periodically during extreme situations.

The links that follow provide helpful information and advice on what changes are necessary for accommodating a wheelchair in the home, as well as tips for planning ahead for a disaster.

Disaster Preparedness for people with Disabilities

This gives the individual all the things to think about and how to plan ahead for potential disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, etc.

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Here is a list of specifications necessary for wheelchair ramps and for showers to have wheelchair access.

Motorhome Modifications

This site discusses modifications one can make to a motor home to make it more accessible.

Preparing for an Emergency

Especially for those with mobility challenges, this is a checklist for planning for an emergency.

Widening Doorways

On this web page, one of the needs of individuals who use a wheelchair is wider halls and doorways for a wheelchair.

Plan Ahead

Additional tips are found here for being prepared in the event of an actual emergency.

Dimensions

This is a brochure that lists minimum dimensions for hallways, and the diameter of space required to make a turn in a wheelchair.

Remodeling

This site gives step-by-step instruction on how to coordinate a remodeling of a home in order for the mobility-challenged resident to maintain independence.

Rebuilding Together

This is a checklist to note where there are accessibility challenges in the home so that changes can be made.

Accessible Home Design

This site provides some design plans for making a home more accessible for a wheelchair.

Home Modifications

Here is a list of questions to ask in determining whether home modifications are needed to improve accessibility.

Home Changes

This page discusses home modifications that would make a home more wheelchair accessible.

Adaptations for the Home

This provides a thorough look at recommendations for home interior design that make it accessible for wheelchairs.

Everything including the kitchen sink

Here is a site from an individual who requires accessible housing; there are photos with explanations of different features that improve quality of life at home.

Before & After Modifications

This presentation illustrates different types of accessibility modifications that can be made to any home.