Marilyn Ypes Architect Inc.


February 12, 2022

How To Adapt Your Home For Handicap Accessibility.jpg

You get that dreaded call in the middle of the night. The one that tells you that your mother had a stroke and is in the hospital. I got that call and it eventually led to my mother moving in with me so I could care for her. Over the years, I have had a number of people ask me for help to make their homes more handicap accessible for an aging family member. It can be overwhelming to begin with because there are so many options depending on your home and your needs. My best advice? Start with the basics. Here’s what to look for:

Getting Into the House

You need to get into the house, but if there are steps, you need a way to get around those steps.

You can install a ramp, either permanent or temporary, up to the front door (which is usually the widest door of the house). Make sure the surface is non-slip and the handrails are adequate. Because of the low slope (1” up for every 12” long) needed for the change in level and the large footprint a ramp can take up, this may not be practical if you have a small front yard. Another option is to install a lift or elevator. Several companies make outdoor lifts suitable for the Canadian winter. Of course, you still need to shovel the snow, so consider adding a roof over the lift to make using it and maintaining it easier.

Getting Through the Door

Widening doors helps everyone, not just people with handicap issues. Baby strollers, furniture moving, all benefit from wider doors.

Doorway openings should be at least 36 inched wide. You can either widen the openings or investigate swing-away hinges to replace the existing hinges. Not all the doors need to be widened, just look to widen the doors to the rooms that you need to use.

Do you actually need that door or can you just take the door off?

Using the Bathroom

You will need room to maneuver, ideally in a 5’-7” diameter circle of clear floor space.

Consider replacing the tub with a walk-in shower which has a hand-held shower nozzle on a sliding bar. You can also add a shower stool in the shower for seating.

Add height to the toilet with a seat extension and add grab bars where needed. Or replace the old toilet with a new energy-efficient one with a higher seat.

Depending on your needs, you can modify the cabinet under the sink so a wheelchair can get closer.

Sometimes it’s just best to completely renovate the bathroom and steal space from another room to make it larger.

Remember to Consider:

Look at your whole home and review low-cost or no-cost ways of relocating activities and furniture before you start extensive renovating or building an addition to increase handicap accessibility.

Perhaps you can move activities for eating, sleeping, bathing and living onto one floor. If some of the household jobs are difficult to do, ask someone else to do those and trade for their jobs.

Simply eliminating some extra furniture or rearranging furniture can help get more space for getting around in your home. Do you need to provide special furniture that is easier to get in and out of?

Taylor the renovations to suit your specific needs. The great thing about handicap accessible design is that it works for everyone. Caregivers with strollers, people with their hands full, someone with a temporary sprained ankle all benefit from this universal way of design.

Some Other Handicap Accessible Ideas:

  • Replace knob-style door handles with lever style handles. This is good for everyone. So many times I have my hands full and use my elbow to open a door.
  • Replace kitchen and bathroom faucets with new facets that have lever handles. I can operate them with just a push of my wrist.
  • Check lighting levels. Add more lights or brighter bulbs and make sure lighting levels are even. Avoid dark areas.
  • Consider non-slip flooring in wet areas. Carpet can be difficult to travel over in a wheelchair unless it is a level loop carpet without an under pad. Wood, laminate, tile, or sheet flooring are great alternatives.
  • Look at lowering light switches and raising electrical outlets to make it easier for people in a wheelchair to reach them.
  • A person who is vision impaired would benefit from contrasting colours on walls and floors. Avoid shiny floors, as they read a being covered with water by someone who is vision impaired. Make the top and bottom of stairs easy to identify be using contrasting colours.
  • A small wood ramp can be installed to get from an outside door over the threshold and down to the deck. If you are building a new deck, keep the top of the deck level with the inside floor level.

Tips for New Construction:

Check the possibility of having the landscaping slope up to the entrance area, thereby eliminating the need for a ramp. Another idea would be to add a vestibule with a door opening at ground level and installing a platform lift going up to the ground floor of the house. That way you have weather protection for the lift. Also you have a chance of cleaning the wheelchair before it comes into the house.

For an addition or new construction, consider rough-ins for a future elevator. This could start as a storage closet lined up on each floor so that when the floor is removed from each closet, you have a ready-made elevator shaft complete with rough-ins for the electrical service and floor drain.

In new construction you have the opportunity of building wider hallways, roomier kitchen and bath spaces, and bigger bedrooms. Keep in mind that the ideal handicap accessible space has room for a wheelchair to turn in a complete circle. That works out to a circle that is 5’-7” in diameter.

Building a new kitchen is a chance to design for handicap accessibility. Locate cupboards and counters so that someone in a wheelchair can get at the essentials. Choose appliances with controls at the front. Provide easy access storage for dishes, food supplies, etc. with a lazy Susan, for example. Use pull out cutting boards for a lower work surface.

To Sum it Up:

There are so many options to provide handicap access to your home. Which ones you choose depends on budget, individual needs for assistance, and the layout of your house and property. If you need help sifting through the myriad of ideas, just ask a professional.

Design for handicap accessibility is just simply design that responds to everyone’s needs. Not only the disabled benefit, everyone benefits.


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