Updated: September 15, 2017
According to the last national census, about 56.7 million people in the United States are living with a disability. It’s important to ensure that the home environment for those with disabilities provides the support they need to lead safe and happy lives. Though certain newer homes are built with accommodations for persons with disabilities, older homes may not have been planned the same way.
Whether you’re in an older home that needs significant changes or are looking for ways to make your newer home even more accessible to disabled needs, this guide is for you. It will cover modifications for every area and room to make your home safer and more accessible. After all, a home is only really a home if it brings comfort and enjoyment to all who live there.
Questions to Consider
You may have recently acquired your new ability status, moved into a new home that needs updates, or simply noticed opportunity to make your home more easily accessible. Whatever the case, there are important questions to ask to figure out how to best suit your needs:
- Are exterior walkways and entrances well-lit and free of tripping hazards?
- Is there at least one step-free entrance into the home?
- Are exterior door thresholds easy to see?
- If it’s a multi-story home, does the ground floor have a bedroom, full bathroom, and kitchen?
- Are staircases well-lit, guarded by handrails on both sides, and equipped with light switches at both the top and bottom?
- Are cabinets and shelves throughout the home within easy reach from your height or ability?
- Does the kitchen have a work surface you can use while sitting?
- Is there a fire extinguisher within reach of the stove and/or oven?
- Are area rugs secured to the floor or lined with non-slip grips?
- Are there smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on each floor of the home that are able to be heard in all bedrooms?
Travel through the exterior of your home and each room of your house with these questions in mind. Consider the most extreme situations when deciding what changes should be made; if you have little trouble reaching high shelves most days but your joints tend to get sore with damp weather, plan to make adjustments to accommodate those tough days. Remember, your disability may present new challenges over time that you’ll want to be prepared for.
Home Exterior Accommodations
Start your exterior assessment at the curb — is your address easily visible from the street? What about in the dark or in inclement weather? It’s important that emergency personnel can find your house quickly when summoned, so consider all conditions they may be met with throughout the year. Mailbox numbers can fall off, get covered in snow, or become faded from sun and rain exposure, so they alone are not enough to mark your address. Your house should have reflective numbers at least three inches tall placed directly on the building to make it easy to identify.
Next, move up your driveway and along any walkways to ensure you can get along without any hindrances. Be mindful of cracks that could cause a walker or wheelchair to get caught and put you at risk for a fall. Again, keep in mind changing conditions — rain or snow that could cause a walkway to be slippery, or low winter light that may cast shadows on certain areas, for example.
At least one exterior entrance should have either a flat threshold or a ramp with railing along both sides and landings at the top and bottom. Ideally, ramps and pathways are slightly textured to reduce water accumulation and increase traction for shoes, walkers, and wheelchairs. (If your area is prone to snow, keep ice melt handy during the season.) Light-motion sensors have excellent benefits: they ensure a well-lit pathway, cut down on energy costs by only activating when needed, and even act as a level of home security since potential thieves won’t appreciate a sudden spotlight.
Make sure your entrance also has some kind of shelf or bench where you can set down packages, bags, or other objects while you unlock the door. You should also make sure there’s ample space to navigate around the open door easily, especially at entrances with ramps or steps. If you’re accommodating your child or a senior parent in a wheelchair, there needs to be enough room for both the chair and anyone who might be helping transport.
Doors, Hallways, and Stairs
One of the most important factors to keeping your home safe is ensuring that there is sufficient lighting in all areas. Hallways and stairwells often lack any windows allowing for natural light, so take special care to light them properly. Long hallways should have light switches at both ends, as should the bottom and top of a staircase. In general, it’s better to keep your home free from area rugs and runners since they can pose a tripping hazard. If you prefer to have them, however, secure them with carpet tape or skid-resistant lining. For a disability-conscious home, never include a rug on the stairs or at the immediate top or bottom even if it’s secured.
If you have limited mobility in your hands or wrists, make sure the doors in your home have handles instead of knobs. You could even consider having power doors installed in the most-used rooms of your house. Be certain, though, that they can be operated manually in case of a power outage. Your front door should include a peephole at your comfort level, as well as a chain that allows you to speak with a visitor without fully opening the door and leaving yourself vulnerable to being overcome.
Your kitchen should have at least one easily-accessible workspace that you can access while sitting. It can be a small dining or breakfast table or a fold-down table securely hinged to the wall — just be sure it’s sturdy enough to bear a fair amount of weight. You can also create a workspace from scratch by removing cabinet doors from a low-rise counter to allow your legs to rest comfortably underneath as you work. Keep in mind this may require removing parts of the base, and you’ll need to consider the counter’s height — most countertops are about 36 inches high, but typically you’ll need the surface to be about 34 inches high to be comfortable. If you plan on making these kinds of changes, measure your comfort range (or the range of whomever will be using the surface) to see what will work best.
The sink will also need to be accessible from a seated position. Even if it’s low enough to accommodate this need, it’s better to create leg space underneath as you did with your counter workspace to have a more direct angle. It’s better to be able to approach the sink straightforward than to come at it parallel and twist your body sideways, straining your back, neck, and arms. Don’t forget to insulate any exposed pipes to prevent burning your legs or feet! Your sink should also have a spray hose that reaches at least 36 inches so you can easily rinse dishes and fill cooking pans.
The stove can be an especially tricky area to make accessible, but it is certainly one of the most dangerous spots in the kitchen if accommodations aren’t made. Controls should all be on the front of the appliance to prevent having to reach across hot burners. Glass cookware can allow you to keep an easier eye on cooking food, but a less-expensive option may be to attach a removable mirror at an angle to the wall behind the cooktop for better visibility. There should be at least two feet of heat-resistant countertop next to the range to permit sliding hot utensils off a burner without the danger of lifting heavy, heated pots.
Even mindful organizing can make your kitchen a more accessible place. Heavy cooking utensils, dishes, and canned foods should be kept on bottom shelves — if you run out of room, you can install pull-out shelves to maximize space. Boxes, drinking glasses, small items, and anything not used on a regular basis can go on top shelves. You can even use clear plastic shelving to easily see what’s on higher-level shelves. Lazy susans are a helpful addition to any cabinet or refrigerator to make it easier to grab items in the back, and BBQ tongs or extension grippers can be kept around the kitchen to help with reaching.
The bathroom can be a dangerous place for anyone — in fact, the CDC reported that each year about 235,000 people ages 15 and over visit the emergency room due to a bathroom-related injury. That means that as a person with a disability, attempting to use a bathroom that doesn’t accommodate your needs can be extremely risky.
Grab bars should be placed throughout the bathroom to provide you extra support. Be sure they’re installed over a stud or blocking within your walls so they’re secure enough to support your weight. They should be by the toilet, the tub, and within the shower or tub stall. It’s best that they have a slight texture to make them easier to hold onto (especially when wet), and colored grab bars are easier to spot in an emergency.
The toilet is another area that will require a personal assessment to determine your personal needs. If it’s too low for you to easily transfer to and from, an elevated seat is an easy fix. Some come with arms or guard rails for additional support. There are even those that have adjustable heights to accommodate evolving needs. When choosing the right seat and installing, be sure you’ll have access space between the seat and toilet for hygiene.
Your bathing area is especially important to get right since water will add extra risk. Shower stalls with curtains, roll-in accessibility, and a seat are the safest option even if you don’t use a wheelchair. Eliminating the need to step over a ledge or tub wall greatly reduces your risk of falling. And even with grab bars within the stall, it’s best to give yourself the option of an adequately-sized seat. Ideally, your shower grab bars run the length of the tub and an additional one is placed at the end opposite the drain to make transfer as easy as possible. A non-slip mat or pads should line the bottom to provide better traction inside, and your bathmat outside should have a non-slip bottom as well.
The sink area can often go overlooked when it comes to accessibility, but it’s an important spot to consider. Countertop sinks are the safest option for support and access (and can be adjusted the same way as in the kitchen). If yours is a free-standing sink, reinforce it with an “L” bracket into a wall stud so there isn’t any danger when leaning on it. It can also be a struggle to reach the medicine cabinet or see the mirror from a lower angle. You can use a wall mirror instead, or take off the medicine cabinet mirror and either lower it or readjust it at an angle to improve visibility. For extra storage, pull-out shelves can be installed in the space between the sink and where your legs rest. You can also hang wire racks or keep baskets nearby with your toiletries. Don’t forget to insulate any exposed plumbing to prevent burns!
The Living Room and Bedroom
Though laminate and tile flooring tend to be better options for hallways, kitchens, and bathrooms, most people appreciate the soft and inviting feel that carpet can add to rooms meant for relaxing like living rooms and bedrooms. It’s important to choose the right kind, however: plush and textured carpet can be difficult to move a wheelchair through and can trip up the legs of a walker or cane. To satisfy both mobility and a feeling of warmth, go for low-pile carpeting (typically 1/4 inch thick). If possible, don’t use carpet pad to reduce resistance even further. Commercial grade carpet tends to be not only more stain-resistant, it’s also more durable against the wear and tear of wheelchairs and walkers.
Space your furniture so that you have adequate room to move around. Keep electrical cords and wires tucked behind furniture or mounted along baseboards to keep them free of your path. If your bed frame, coffee or end tables, or any other furniture in your home have sharp corners, it may be a good idea to pad them to avoid a painful run-in. Be sure that any bed skirts, comforters, or furniture slipcovers don’t hang too far to the floor in a way that could trip you.
You may want to have a grab bar installed near the head of your bed for easier transfer. If you opt to use a bedside table to aid you, it should be securely mounted into a stud in the wall. Make sure you have a landline accessible from your bedside or an outlet where you can charge your mobile phone overnight so that you can immediately contact help in the event of a nighttime emergency.
Many of these home adjustments can be done yourself, but always be sure to consult a professional contractor when it comes to mounting grab bars and other furniture to the wall. Have a two-way dialogue when determining what modifications to make and exactly how they’re made; never get talked into anything you’re not comfortable with. When in doubt, get a second opinion or even consult your doctor on your best options. Professionals can be your guide to safety, but it’s important for you to have input on what will make your living arrangements comfortable and accessible.
Buying a Home
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate against potential homebuyers based on a disability. In addition, a lender cannot discourage an applicant from applying for a loan based on a disability, nor can they alter the terms or conditions of a loan for this reason (such as increasing an interest rate). Fortunately, there are many organizations and programs who can help people with disabilities who want to buy a home. Check out our Guide for Disabled Homebuyers to learn more about your rights and resources available to you.
When you’re ready to start shopping for a home, Redfin is here for you. We recently announced the ability for home buyers to filter by single story homes and accessible homes! To search for homes for sale online, visit Redfin.com or get in touch with a Redfin real estate agent, who can help you find a home that will meet your needs.
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