Table of Contents
Got a bad medical diagnosis and need a wheelchair-friendly home?
You can find yourself in need of a handicap accessible home in the flash of an eye. Or maybe it creeps up over the years. Someone in your household could fall and experience a sudden catastrophic injury. Or a household member could become disabled over a longer time with a medical diagnosis.
Also, more and more households simply plan to age in place, so inhabitants eventually benefit from any home modifications to remain in their homes as long as possible.
Even a few months in a wheelchair can make a home a challenging place to be. So, there are steps you can take to make home easier to maneuver in and enjoy. For long-term wheelchair use, it is prudent to consider more permanent changes and renovations to your home to make life easier for everyone who lives there.
Removing Barriers to Age in Place for the Best Quality of Life
The creation of a handicap accessible environment involves removing barriers that make daily necessities accessible. It could be you’ll need to tackle just a few rooms or perhaps the whole house.
Some simple DIY projects can make an immediate impact, while others more extensive projects require actual renovations.
I’d like to take a complete look at your home with you in this article. Interior and exterior, room by room, let’s look together to better understand how to make a home truly wheelchair friendly.
Let’s Start with the Doors
Doors by their very nature are not wheelchair-friendly and are barriers, including the width, the door itself, the room it opens to, and the threshold.
- Doorways should be at least 32” wide, comfortably more like 36”. Residential doorways range from 23” to 30”. Door trim and the door itself impede passage, too.
- Consider installing offset hinges, or “Z” hinges. These are relatively inexpensive and easy to install and create enough space for most wheelchairs. Otherwise, remove the doors or trim. Replace the doors with curtains or other privacy options.
- Pushing someone in a wheelchair over raised thresholds seems to take minimal effort, but it takes a lot of effort for the user, especially after a serious medical diagnosis. They may injure their hands or damage the door frame. Minimize the height of thresholds or replace them with cushioned ones that flatten as the chair rolls over.
- Traditional door knobs are often challenging because of hand muscle atrophy or reach associated with many a medical diagnosis. Lever-style door handles solve this.
And Look Up to the Lights
Lighting is frequently overlooked. Lights are designed for those standing or walking, not for those in a wheelchair.
- Glare from under-counter lighting or recessed lighting can be disturbing. Ask the person in the wheelchair to take a tour of the home and experience the lighting. Frequently, glare problems are resolved by lowering the lights, offering alternative sources, or changing to reduced glare bulbs.
- Light switches behind countertops are challenging to reach. Some switches are too high or too close to doors. Wheelchair-friendly light switches are 36” high. Easier to manipulate rocker-style switches are the best choice.
Navigational lighting uses LED lights to guide users down hallways or to doorways in the dark. The lighting mounts at the base of floorboards to illuminate travel lanes.
And Look Down at the Floors
Wheelchair-friendly floors consider four fundamental factors.
- Easy to maintain
- Wears well
- Easy to maneuver in a wheelchair
Here are some wheelchair-friendly flooring options:
Laminate flooring often wears better than real wood under extensive wheelchair use. It is undoubtedly easier to maintain than wood and is much less expensive to replace. But don’t rush out and replace your wood flooring! Most laminate has a slip-resistant surface and is easy to roll over in a wheelchair.
Ceramic tile is a natural choice for wheelchair-friendly homes. It is relatively inexpensive, flat, durable, easy to maintain and slip resistant. Larger tiles provide a smoother surface with fewer grout lines. Ceramic is also perfect for handicap accessible kitchen and bathrooms where there is water present.
Some carpeted surfaces can be managed by some wheelchair users. If the pile or padding is too thick, it provides resistance. Low pile, especially commercial-grade carpeting, is best. Over time, even low pile carpeting shows signs of wear.
Generally, area rugs are not recommended on any surface, as they typically impede the ability to maneuver in a wheelchair.
Ultimately, consider a flooring choice for the needs of your wheelchair user in your home.
Now Look Down the Halls
Hallways also need to be at least 36” wide, but 48” is the ideal minimum (and required by law in commercial applications). This is for a straight entrance to a doorway type hallway with no turns.
If a turn is necessary on entering the room along a hallway, a minimum of 36” clearance is needed in every direction to be handicap accessible.
What About the Bathrooms?
Bathrooms are often one of the most challenging areas to retrofit after an injury or medical diagnosis. Larger bathrooms are easier. Clearance between immovable barriers again needs to be at least 36”.
The ADA recommends seat heights between 17-19”. This is comfortable and makes transfers more manageable. There are several ways to change the height of a toilet.
- Purchase and install a new, taller toilet
- Purchase a wall-mounted toilet and install at the desired height
- Use an elevated base underneath to raise the toilet
- Install a thicker toilet seat to raise the seat’s height
- Use a plastic toilet seat insert that raises the seat height
- And my personal favorite – A bidet
Ideally, two grab bars, no more than 36” apart, installed on either side of the toilet are preferred. At the very least, install a single grab bar within 18” of the near wall. Grab bars that install on the rear wall are also available.
Mount toilet paper holders slightly forward of the seat.
The Sink and the Vanity
- Wall-mounted sinks with a minimum of 27” knee clearance are the best choice for wheelchair-friendly bathrooms.
- Sink rim heights should mount at 34” or lower.
- Single handle faucets are better than grab-and-twist types, but the faucets with sensors that determine when your hands are underneath are the best!
- Keep hand towels handy at wheelchair height and personal care products low enough to reach.
- Keep mirrors just above the sink height and large enough for everyone in the household.
And the Shower and the Tub
The trend now is for walk-in showers that are already handicap accessible, except for a few grab bars and a shower seat. I was fortunate enough to design my own bathroom and I made sure the whole space was wheelchair-friendly. Transfer into a shower needs the standard minimum 36” access.
Grab bar installations at a sitting, and standing heights can substitute for longer, angled grab bars that accommodate both positions. In many cases, more substantial renovations may be necessary.
Walk-in tubs are designed so users enter the tub without climbing over sidewalls. Instead, the user enters when the tub is empty, the tub fills, and the self-sealing door keeps the water in the tub. Keep faucet controls handy for the user.
Some showers can accommodate a wheelchair. With floors that drain, the shower floors have textured, non-slip surfaces to help prevent falls. These showers are at least 60” wide for a complete turn of the wheelchair. The handheld showerhead has a 60” hose with handy faucet controls.
There are many more things to remember as you make your home wheelchair-friendly and handicap accessible after an injury or medical diagnosis. As you consider each aspect of your home, also consider every way your life (or the life of your loved one) could be made easier with greater accessibility.
Check out my article called How to Decide to Move or Renovate – The Accessible Home to look at this topic in even more depth.