There’s no manual for this, and every situation is different. You may be scared. I’m here to tell you not to panic.
This post is about modifications you can make to your home (or what to look for in a home) to make it more livable for someone with a special need. As someone who has spent his entire life in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, I can tell you not everything about my house is “normal.” However, modifications can make it easier for a person with a disability to function in their most personal space.
I’ve come to feel “disability” is the wrong word. It implies that a person cannot do certain things. If you’re new to this, you’ll come to find that you or the person you care about can often do a great many things; you just do them differently.
When modifying a home to make it easier to use for someone with a physical disability, there are three big factors you want to consider: spacing, flooring and reachability/usability.
Space is of particular concern if the person gets around with a wheelchair, walker or scooter. There needs to be enough space for them to get through doorways with their adaptive equipment.
Ideally, doorways should be 32 inches, but in a residence, this is not always feasible. A lot of this depends on the width of the equipment at the base. Although it’s tight, I can fit my chair through 28-inch doorways. This may not be attainable for everyone.
If you’re looking to add door width, you could consider swing clear hinges or a pocket door that slides back into the wall.
It’s key to make sure that there is maneuvering room around frequently used objects. For instance, in the kitchen, make sure to leave room around the stove, microwave, sink, table and dishwasher. Whatever amount of space you think you need, add a couple of inches to account for the “bad driver factor.” I probably won’t be good at parking until backup cameras become standard on wheelchairs. In short, every inch counts. (There’s absolutely no truth to the rumor that this post is to explain to my parents why the walls and door jams are scratched and broken.)
In the living area, make sure there is a good space to put the person and their mobility equipment so that both they and those around them can see the TV. Always leave space for any other adaptive equipment that may be needed.
Flooring can be another important consideration. People in manual wheelchairs or with walkers especially will have a hard time rolling on plush carpet. As for power chairs, a flooring contractor once came to my house and explained that the weight of the person combined with the weight of the chair and all the pivoting that goes on really wears down carpet.
Hardwood might work well, but be aware it can scratch. The harder the flooring rating, the better. Laminate might be a good option because it’s more durable and stain resistant. If you want to use carpet for the bedrooms, low pile carpet will work best. Also, commercial grade carpet will wear better.
Reach and Usability
There are several considerations when it comes to reach and usability. The level of independence may depend on a person’s gross motor function. In general, these tips will make things easier.
Adaptive handles, such as this one and this one, provide multiple ways of opening doors that can be very helpful. Personally, I have a kick plate on my bedroom door that allows me to leave it slightly ajar and bust in SWAT style if necessary. Alternatively, they do sell automatic door setups for the home, although they are a little pricey. Ramps replacing stairs also make things more accessible in entryways. If someone needs to get up stairs, stair lifts are a great option.
In the kitchen, a roll-under sink can make things easier for wheelchair users. When trying to figure out the proper height, measure from the ground to a few inches above the knee; anything higher than that can be awkward to use. Sinks with levers or sinks that are touchless may also be helpful.
If the person is able to use the oven, consider getting an oven that can be mounted on the wall. These come both in top-opening and side-opening styles. These ovens are generally smaller, but they’re much easier to reach than an oven on the floor. The same goes for dishwashers. If you can mount them higher, they may work better as they are easier to get into. Pull-out cabinet organizers can enhance reachability.
Consider remotes for light and ceiling fan combinations. These can be helpful in rooms where you would otherwise have to be able to reach up to control the lights and the fan separately. Things like The Clapper and touch lamps can make things easy if you have a hard time dealing with switches. They even sell bulbs you can control with your smartphone, such as this one by Philips. That particular system is a little pricey, but it lets you control tone, contrast, color and more. It has the added advantage of being able to transform your living room into Tatooine during Star Wars viewings; however, there are cheaper options.
The same rules for sinks in the kitchen can apply to desks in the bedroom: Make them high enough, but not too high. If you can find room in your budget, I highly recommend getting a motorized standing desk. This sounds counterintuitive, but they are highly adjustable and can often go as low as you would want. This could also allow people to take advantage of the advanced features that allow for changing position in the newer power wheelchairs.
You also want to make sure you leave enough space for adaptive devices that might be necessary in the bedroom, such as transfer boards and bed rails.
I want to put in a quick note here about lift systems for the bedroom and the bathroom. Overhead lifts are good for transferring from the chair to the bed or shower when you might otherwise not be able to execute this. They all work using a sling and some sort of overhead track system.
If you install a lift that doesn’t come down, the headers are removed from your door to be able to go straight from the bedroom to the bathroom. Alternatively, in my home I have a portable lift that allows me to transfer from the bed to the chair. I then drive to the bathroom with the lift in my lap and hook it back up again to go to the toilet and the shower.
In the bathroom, leave space for any necessary assistive devices. These could include transfer benches/boards, handholds, etc.
The same rule applies to the bathroom sink as sinks in the kitchen. Also, make sure the mirror is not too high for someone seated.
It’s becoming a trend now to recommend higher toilets for those with disabilities. (This seems to have even caught on with the mainstream public.) The theory is that it’s easier to stand if you don’t have to get down as low. I’m going to go against the grain here and say it really depends on the height of the individual. As a short person, my feet don’t reach the floor with a higher seat. This doesn’t provide me with the most stable base possible for balance purposes.
When it comes to showering or bathing, there are several things you can do to make the process a little bit easier. One of the simplest is to put in a nonskid mat. Well-secured grab bars can help someone get up out of the bathtub or stand in the shower. For those who will be seated, consider a built-in bench or shower seat. Make sure hygiene products are left within reach, possibly through the use of a shower caddy or built-in shelving.
If the person will be using a roll-in shower chair, you will want to look at low- or no-threshold showers. When considering spacing, remember to leave room for caregivers or aides to access if the person will need help with bathing.
Do you have any tips for making the home more accessible to those with a physical disability? Share them with us in the comments.
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