Home Modifications for Wheelchair Users: Quick Wins!

Improving the accessibility of an existing home often requires remodeling and a large budget. But, there are smaller, easier home modifications for wheelchair users that can make a big difference. Use these tips and suggestions for your own quick wins!

man moving wheelchair in his accessible home
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There are many reasons that a person may find themselves needing to use a wheelchair. For some, it is simply the result of the loss of muscle mass and mobility that can come with age. For others, it is joint pain, injury, or degenerative disability.

Whether it is you who needs to use a wheelchair to get around or you have a loved one who is going to need to use one, you may quickly discover that your modern home is not designed with wheelchair users in mind.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to improve the layout of your home and make it more wheelchair accessible. Some modifications are expensive and time consuming, but there are many things that are ‘quick wins’ and that will make life easier for a wheelchair user without costing the earth.

Because the best wheelchair is one that you can use throughout your entire home!

Entrances – Getting In and Out

According to the CDC, 7.8% of adults in the US are either unable to walk a quarter mile, or find it very difficult to do so. Disability Compendium’s most recent report notes that in 2016, 6.6% of people in the United States had some form of ambulatory disability.

Given those figures, it’s easy to find yourself wondering why so many homes have steps leading up to the front and rear doors. Perhaps the simplest change that could be made to a home to make life easier for a wheelchair user would be to add ramps leading in and out of the property. Temporary ramps are easy to find online, but someone would need to place and remove those ramps to allow the wheelchair user to get in and out of their home. A better option would be a permanent modification to the property that allows the user to enter and leave freely at any time.

If you are getting a permanent ramp added, make sure that it has a slope of no more than 1 inch for every 12 inch of horizontal movement – a ratio of 1 to 12, so that the user does not struggle to climb the ramp.

wheelchair ramp with rails at the front of a home

Doorways / Hallways – Moving Around

Some older properties have fairly narrow doorways. It is difficult for some wheelchairs to go through such tight spaces. To allow someone to use a standard wheelchair and move around ‘on their own power’, the doorway should be at least 32″ wide, and 36″ is better. The 36″ size is fairly standard for modern properties, but often interior doors are smaller than this, which may make it harder for people to move a wheelchair from room to room.

If your doors are too narrow you can make things easier for a wheelchair user by removing doors and hanging beads or a privacy curtain instead, or by switching to swing-away hinges so that the door can open wider. In some cases, removing the frame can add valuable inches, depending on the type of door and frame. Before you start calling contractors to cut holes into your walls, see if there are ways that you can reclaim some space less invasively.

Stairs

Stairs are a challenge for a lot of older people and those who are struggling with mobility. Stairlifts or ‘chair lifts’ are popular with people who live on multi-floor homes and who want to be able to move up and down floors without walking. Prices for simple stair lifts start at $2,000 to $5,000 and can be even greater than that for lifts that need to traverse multiple flights or follow a curved path.

If investing in a stairlift is not practical at this time, an alternative option might be to change the layout of your home so that most activities can be conducted on the ground floor, freeing people to use the upper floors only at a time when family are around. Of course, this would require there being a ground floor bathroom in addition to any bathrooms attached to the master bedroom, or setting up a spare room as an ’emergency bedroom’.

man in wheelchair using the bathroom sink to wash his hands

Bathrooms

As strange as it sounds, the bathroom or toilet is one of the more accident-ridden rooms in the house! Every year, around 235,000 people aged 15 or over are forced to visit emergency rooms because of a bathroom-related accident. These accidents tend to be related to slippery tiles and other surfaces. People over the age of 85 suffer a lot of accidents in the bathroom, likely due to the difficulty of sitting on and getting up from the toilet.

The risk of accidents is even greater for someone who uses a wheelchair since they likely lack the strength and mobility to transfer themselves from the chair to the toilet and back, or to get in and out of the bath. Using walk-in showers with shower chairs, and installing handrails on the wall, are two simple ways of making navigating the bathroom easier.

Bedrooms

Getting in and out of a standard bed can be difficult for a wheelchair user. Fortunately, moving some furniture around and laying out the bedroom correctly can make life easier. The most important thing is to ensure that there is a clear route from the door to the side of the bed, and clear space around three quarters of the bed, or the whole of one side (with the bed pushed against the wall), to allow the wheelchair user to get close to the bed so they can get in and out.

The mattress of the bed should be the same height as the wheelchair user’s cushion so that they can transition from chair to bed and back again. Grab bars or bed rails can help seniors get in and out of the bed easier. If the bed is too high, then a floor lift could help the wheelchair user position themselves at a suitable height. There should be space for the wheelchair to turn around so that the user can leave the bedroom.

senior woman being pushed through her living room by her caregiver

Living Spaces

Moving around is a huge portion of the battle, but if you spend some time in a wheelchair you will quickly find that there are a lot of things that are simply not designed for people who are sat down, or who have limited mobility. Whether that’s getting things from a cupboard shelf, opening a drawer, or getting something out of a dresser, standard house layouts assume that you are standing up and can reach, bend and lean in a way that the average wheelchair user cannot.

Some simple changes that make a home more ‘user friendly’ for a wheelchair user include:

  • Provide knee space under counters and sinks so that wheelchair users can get close to them
  • Store most things in low storage spaces, not shoulder-height cupboards
  • Add grab bars anywhere that a user is likely to want to transition to or from the wheelchair
  • Use side-by-side fridges and freezers instead of a chest freezer or tower
  • Move rails in wardrobes lower down
  • Use large ring pulls on drawers instead of small handles
  • Swap doorknobs for easy to grasp handles or, if the budget is there, wall push pads
  • Choose floor surfaces that provide a good grip for the wheelchair’s wheels and for walkers and other aids
  • Remove rugs which may curl up and get caught in wheels

Wrapping Up

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a home more wheelchair accessible. With thought and planning you can make a lot of improvements, and once you have spent some time with the new layout you will be able to prioritize where to spend any money on upgrades to get the best results.

About Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS® 364 Articles
Assistive Technology Professional, Custom Wheelchair Specialist, Medical Equipment Guru, Dad and Grandfather
I am a lucky dad to four awesome daughters and grandfather to three pretty terrific grandkids. When not working as a custom wheelchair specialist at a regional home medical equipment company, I enjoy early morning runs and occasional kayak trips. I am also a self-admitted nerd who loves anything from the 1980's. Learn More

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