Improving home accessibility for the disabled

The Associated Press
Friday June 08, 2001

If you or a member of your family should become physically disabled, how “user-friendly” would your home be? How accessible is your home? When making home improvements, are you thinking ahead to your “twilight years”? Accessible design and construction is becoming increasingly important to American homeowners, as longevity increases. 

While accessible design and construction is growing in popularity, consideration for the physically disabled isn’t new. In 1990, the U.S. Congress established “a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.” Among other things, this legislation, known as the “Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” mandates that the design and construction in public buildings include elements that make the space accessible for people with physical disabilities. 

The ADA also provides non-mandatory design criteria that can be employed in private residences to make the space safer and more accessible for people with physical disabilities. While these design elements are many, a few examples include ramps, wider door openings, and kitchens and bathrooms that are accessible. 

Our first experience with such accessibility goes back nearly 40 years when our folks had a ramp built at our back porch for use by our grandmother who was a wheelchair user. While the ramp made Nana’s life easier, if we knew then what we know now, we are confident that her life could have been made more comfortable yet. 

Although a ramp is one of the more obvious, there are other elements that can improve the comfort and safety of people with physical disabilities: 

• Door openings that are wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through can make all of the space in a home accessible. The ADA suggests a clearance of at least 32 inches when a door is open at a 90-degree angle. 

• Provide smooth transitions between different types of flooring and limit carpet pile thickness to one-half inch. 

• Install grab bars at toilets, tubs and showers. The ADA provides specific criteria for the size and placement of grab bars. 

• Grab bars and waterproof seats are other popular safety and comfort enhancements that can be made to a tub or shower stall. For people who have difficulty stepping over and into a tub, a traditional tub or shower can be replaced with a molded prefabricated shower stall that is wheelchair accessible. These units come complete with grab bars and a fold-down seat. Some remodeling (wall relocation) might be required in order for your bathroom to accommodate such a unit. Several manufacturers produce prefabricated shower stalls (floor and walls) that do not have a “curb” at the front. That makes them more wheelchair accessible. 

• Install sinks no more than 34 inches above the finished floor with at least 27 inches of knee clearance below. Also, wrap all exposed plumbing pipes with a foam material to prevent leg injury. 

• The lowest edge of a mirror above a sink should be no more than 36 inches above the floor. 

• Provide a 60-inch wheelchair turnaround in a bathroom. 

• Install a toilet that is 17 inches to 19 inches above the floor (to the top of the toilet seat). 

• In the kitchen, counters should measure no more than 34 inches above the finished floor and should project out no more than 21 inches. Moreover, there should be at least 27 inches of under-counter clearance for wheelchair access. 

• Shelving height and closet rods should be no more than 48 inches above the floor. 

More information on accessible design can be obtained at the ADA website at www.uskoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm and at www.access-board.gov. 

In addition, an excellent book on the subject is “Building for a Lifetime: The Design and Construction of Fully Accessible Homes” by Margaret Wylde with Sam Clark and Adrian Baron-Robins; Taunton Press, December, 1993. 

To save cost, people are incorporating disabled-accessible features into their remodeling projects. What’s more, home buyers – especially empty nesters looking to downsize – have started asking builders to incorporate many of these features into their new homes.