Do you ever watch one of those home renovation or home buying shows and see someone talking about their "forever" home and then it's room after room of step down or step up areas, tiny bathrooms, narrow hallways and steep stairs? Yeah, that's not a forever home. That's a "'til you experience a mobility or sensory change" home.
An accessible home isn't just about aging. One in four people experience a short-term disability before retirement age whether from illness, accident or pregnancy. The CDC estimates that approximately 27% of American adults have some level of disability.
There are a lot of things to consider when either looking for an accessible living space or when retrofitting an existing space to be more accessible. Here are a few considerations for planning different areas of the home and potential accommodations for each space.
Buying vs Building vs Retrofitting
Depending on whether you are buying, building or retrofitting, your options may be limited structurally or limited only by budget.
When buying what you intend as your true "forever" home, you may not immediately need full accessibility throughout the home, however you want to be on the lookout for things that will make it easy to create the accommodations you might eventually need. Major structural changes are expensive and not always possible so ideally, the core of the home should be compatible with possible future needs. Some things to look for:
- First floor space that is currently or can become a bedroom.
- First floor bathroom with sufficient space or the possibility of being expanded.
- Even floors: no step down or step up areas or platforms that break up the floors.
- Sufficient space to add ramps if there are exterior steps.
- Sufficient width in the doorways and walkways.
Depending on your budget, this is your most limitless option allowing you to design for longevity from the get-go.
- Focus on your first floor as your primary space as this will be the floor you will want guaranteed full use of forever. Make sure rooms have plenty of space that can accommodate your needs over time.
Retrofitting can range from small projects to full renovations or the addition of aftermarket changes to make existing interfaces and spaces more accessible.
The most common constraints to retrofits (outside of budget) tend to be space and access to power outlets. Plan around where you can make the best use of space for room and convenience.
If you are renting, your state or county may have laws that require your landlord to make a reasonable accommodation to a rental or allow you to make such changes yourself. Check with your state agency on disabilities for state-specific guidance.
Garage / Parking Spaces
Accessible parking spaces should be at least 8’ x 6’ and have at least 48” of clearance on at least one side for sufficient room for wheelchairs, walkers or peer assistance.
If you live in a place with public parking or on-street parking, your community may have a program where a public parking spot can be set aside as an accessible parking spot. Check with your city's parking authority for whether this is possible.
Pathways should be a minimum of 36" wide and made of compact and firm materials that allow for traction. Consider up to 48" if you have the space for it. This slightly wider size accommodates powered wheelchairs or having a support person walking side-by-side
If you're planning around visual challenges; avoid winding, curving or other unpredictable pathway options that will make it more difficult for someone with visual challenges to navigate confidently. Pathways that change in texture or pattern may result in uncertainty about whether you are still on the pathway.
Exterior lighting of pathways, ramps and stairs is an additional consideration to help prevent falls.
Ramps should rise no more than 1” per foot and be at least 36" wide to accommodate wheelchairs. They should be constructed of sturdy materials and the surface should offer sufficient traction (especially in the rain). If your ramp has to extend longer than 30', it should have a landing at the midpoint to allow for resting. Sturdy handrails are important for ramps, porches and decks.
Remember, ramps aren't a one-and-done solution. Multiple egress points are standard in homes in case of fire. Likewise, you should have a ramp at all possible egress points to ensure it's possible to evacuate your home.
Exterior doors should be at minimum, 36" wide. However, if you need to accommodate a power wheelchair now or in the future, you might consider going wider.
However, it's not just about door width. You need to be able to move around the door which makes the space around the door and the direction it swings also factors to consider.
This PDF from the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety contains several diagrams that show minimum space for maneuvering around and through doorways depending on how the door opens.
Ensuring a doorbell is well lit and at an accessible height is helpful to ensure that visitors can find and use the doorbell. It should be no higher than 48" from the ground in order to be widely reachable. Try to keep it in a standard location to the side of your door.
For residents, there are a lot of options for doorbells with either cameras or lights and apps to help alert residents to the presence of someone at the door. There are kits available to connect a doorbell to lighting that can flicker or change color to alert people with hearing challenges. Camera doorbells usually come with an app that can also provide alerts.
Interior Doors and Pathways
Hallways and travel corridors around furniture and through rooms should be a minimum of 36" wide. Going up to 48" is more ideal to accommodate crutches, wheelchairs, walkers or side-by-side mobility assistance.
Flooring such as vinyl, wood and tile are compatible with wheelchairs and most mobility aids. When it comes to carpet, depending on the specific accommodation needed, look for a low-pile and tight weave for maximum compatibility. Loose, thick carpets can potentially cause crutches, walkers or canes to get caught. Thicker pile carpeting can also create trip hazards for people unable to fully lift their feet while walking. Carpets must be fully and completely attached to the flooring below to ensure they don't bunch up.
If using area rugs, use the appropriate fasteners to keep the edges from rolling up and creating trip hazards.
Bathrooms present a tricky challenge with regard to movement and hazards. Most bathrooms, particularly in older homes, tend to be quite tight in space and difficult to accommodate mobility aids.
Depending on your accommodation needs, the toilet may be simple issue of adding sufficient support bars into the nearby walls or by ensuring there is sufficient space around the toilet to accommodate mobility aids. Approximately 48" in front of the toilet and up to 60" in width will ensure sufficient space for wheelchairs or walkers. A hook or notch can also be installed to keep canes from falling out of reach.
Shower / Bathtub
In a head-to-head comparison, a shower is easier to build or retrofit for accessibility than a traditional bathtub.
Bathtubs present a number of challenges because of the movement required to get in and out of them while navigating slick surfaces.
If you are able to replace the traditional tub with a walk-in tub, some of those risks are mitigated but it can still be tricky and such a change is not always an affordable or viable option. Basic models can still cost a few thousand dollars just for the tub.
Showers can be made into an accessible bathing option with the use of built in or removable seating, shower wands and proper support bars. If you're building, you can also design for a larger shower. This removes the need for shower doors or curtains that have to be handled.
A sink with an open space underneath is the most accessible iteration, allowing for a wheelchair to roll at least partially underneath which makes the faucet easier to reach.
A first-floor bedroom is a key component of long-term accessibility. If you're buying, look for a space that could be converted to a bedroom if there isn't an existing first floor bedroom.
If you're building a new home, placing the primary bedroom on the first floor will help future proof your home and ensure your bedroom is the one you want for the long term rather than the one you're stuck with later.
Some mobility circumstances may require the use of lifts to ensure transfer to and from bed or the use of specialized beds. For lifts, you want to ensure you'll be able to anchor such devices to strong enough support studs or beams unless it's a floor unit next to the bed.
For the use of beds, equipment or other medical devices, you may also need sufficient power access near the bed.
When it comes to furniture, it really depends on each individual's needs. In some cases, softer, less firm furniture is best for arthritis or other conditions where impact can cause discomfort.
When it comes to furniture and mobility, firmer cushions are usually better so that it's easier to get up and down.
Remember to leave adequate room to maneuver around furniture. For those with vision challenges, it's important that the layout of furniture is predictable and consistent.
Sinks that have open space below make it easier for wheelchair or walker to comfortably use the sink. If possible, select a sink with a drain near the back so the drain pipe will be located closer to the wall.
Lever or touch faucets are easier to use and it might be worth considering mounting the faucet at the side rather than the back of the sink to minimize the distance to reach the faucet.
Standard countertops are usually around 36" in height. For wheelchair compatible counters, consider an adjustable or lowered counter of around 28" to 34". Open space under countertops make it possible for a wheelchair to move under them. You need at least 27" of clearance for knees.
Microwaves located over a stovetop are difficult to use and also require holding hot objects near face height. Placing the microwave on a countertop or installed in lower cabinets ensures it's in a more reachable location and reduces the risk of spilling or dropping hot items.
If you're planning around cognitive accommodations, consider whether it's possible to switch from a gas to electric stove which reduces risks associated with the stove being unintentionally left on.
You might also find that a stove top that's separate from the oven might be a more accessible arrangement than a combination appliance.
A side-hinged oven door makes it easier to get sufficiently close to the interior of the oven without the user having to reach or lean over the door.
Depending on the accommodation needed, appliances come with touchscreen interfaces or with raised buttons that can be identified by touch.
Touch interfaces may be a good fit for limited strength and finger control. However, tactile interfaces may be a better fit for those needing visual accommodation. Appliances with voice control might be a good option as well depending on your needs.
Ensure there is at least 36" to 48" of clearance around your dining table for maneuverability. For tables, consider the support structure under the table and whether it maximizes the compatibility with user needs and reduces the possibility of tripping. Likewise, your dining chairs should be easy to move as needed while providing sufficient support.
Depending on your needs, front or top-loading units may be a better fit for your space and access.
All stairs should have sturdy support railing that's easy to reach and hold on to. Stair tread should be a minimum of 10" deep and should be made of up firm materials that don't pose a slip or trip hazard.
Consider whether your stairs have that tiny overhang (called nosing) or whether they are completely flat on the face. If they have nosing, remember that someone who has to somewhat feel their way or drag their feet, may catch their feet on those bumps creating a possible trip hazard. Open back stairs create a similar trip hazard.
Chairlifts / Elevators
Chairlifts are the installable lifts that can be a retrofit available for stairs. Whether it's possible depends on the construction of the stairs.
If you're looking at a new build of what you intend to be a forever home, it might be worth considering planning the space for either an immediate install or later install of a chair lift or even a home elevator. While it sounds like a wild extravagance for a home, the costs have lowered quite a bit in recent years and you might find it worthwhile to include in the build cost to ensure you can keep full access to the entirety of your home no matter what may come with time.
Counters and Table Tops
The ADA recommends that countertops and table tops be a minimum of 28" and no more than 34" from the finished floor for wheelchair access. Open spaces to fit a wheelchair under the surface will maximize its accessibility.
Doors and cabinets hardware
Traditional knobs are one of the least accessible hardware options. For anyone with grip difficulties, knobs are a challenge to use. Try to avoid anything that requires twisting, grasping or pinching in order to use.
The more accessible option is lever style handles. Fortunately, these can come in a wide array of designs and styles that can blend in with your style and decor.
For cabinet hardware, similarly, pulls that are bar style rather than knobs, makes them easier to interact with.
It's possible to retrofit an existing property with automatic doors. Kits can be purchased to add an over-the-door mount that can be triggered by a button. If you are planning a new construction, you might want to assume a possible future in which you want the heavier doors of your home to be opened by a switch. Plan for the space around the door frame and the electrical access that will be necessary for this accessibility upgrade.
Adequate storage is a key component of ensuring clutter doesn't obscure the predictability of a room's layout. For people experiencing vision loss or complex aging, clutter creates trip hazards. For people using mobility aids, clutter can impede their passage through spaces.
Having sufficient storage will help prevent messy spaces and add predictability to locating items.
Cabinet uppers with shelves can become difficult to use depending on different mobility factors. Pull-down inserts make it possible to lower cabinet contents to a lower height for easier reaching. (Note: similar inserts are possible for closets as well.)
Drawer based lower cabinets make accessing the contents easier than traditional shelving which requires bending, twisting and reaching in order to fully utilize. These drawers can be built into the cabinets themselves or you can modify existing cabinets with drawer inserts that provide similar functionality.
Closets should have either sliding or bi-fold doors or a minimum of 48" of clear space in front in order to be able to maneuver around the doors. If you are accommodating a wheelchair, the closet rods and shelving should be within 48” of the floor and the shelves should be no more than 18” deep. Similar to cabinets, there are closet systems that can be built or added later to pull down shelves or reach higher areas of the closet.
Light switches / Thermostats / Curtain and blind cords
Throughout the house, you will have different points of interaction such as light switches, thermostats, and the pulls and cords to position blinds and curtains.
These points of interaction should be consistently placed in rooms with no furniture or materials obscuring access. They should be within 48" of the floor.
If you can't move them, smart interfaces that can be controlled by apps might be a possible solution depending on your circumstances.
Electrical outlets should also be available above traditional floor level. You can buy outlet covers with built in lighting making them easier to identify with visual impairment.
Keep in mind where you may need additional outlets to support medical equipment. By the bed and by a primary seating area are common locations to make use of medical equipment that may require power.
Lighting is a particularly important consideration alongside clear travel ways. One of the core risk management components of accessibility is reducing the possibility of falling. Falling is a risk across a wide-range of different conditions and circumstances and it's an incident that worsens existing conditions or causes injuries that further complicate accessibility needs.
Simplifying the control of lighting with things like smart plugs or bulbs make it easier to turn lights on from anywhere in the room.
Adequate lighting is critical to navigating stairs. Lights on each riser might be a good idea for visual accommodations and are reasonably accomplished either to begin with or as a retrofit.
Different health conditions may make air quality a key concern. For a buy or new build, evaluate the quality of the HVAC and whether air filters are part of the system. For an existing home, you may consider adding air purifiers in different rooms.
Door and Window Sensors
While not inherently an accessibility factor, if the housing is intended for someone experiencing memory or cognitive challenges, door and window sensors can provide a heads up if someone is attempting to exit the residence.
While it's becoming more common to install camera systems inside the home, there are a lot of privacy aspects to carefully consider.
While internal cameras may provide reassurance with regard to being able to check in and make sure everything is okay, it's critical that any such systems are done with the full knowledge and understanding of the resident and with measures taken to preserve privacy and dignity.
The Personal Touch
We all have our own habits and special likes such as a specific chair or place we like to be. Consider what you can do to make those spaces and repeated tasks convenient as possible. Even something as simple as a cord manager attached to the side of an end table or nightstand to make sure a phone charging cable never falls out of reach can make a difference.
Things to Keep in Mind
Remember, accessibility is not only about mobility. While wheelchair access is a common concern, especially when thinking about the layout of spaces, accessibility is also about interfaces, textures, lighting, sound, access to power outlets. Everyone deserves a living space they can be comfortable in and able to fully utilize.
Want more ideas? Check out this Pinterest board collecting different types of accessibility modifications.