How to design a wheelchair accessible home Part 1

If you’re a wheelchair user you will be well aware of the design challenges as you go about your daily business – lack of dropped kerbs in a city, restaurants you can’t access, lack of accessible toilets, shop aisles being too narrow and counters being too high.

When hunting for a home there’s likely to be similar challenges, we looked at 55 (yes, that’s fifty five!) bungalows before we found the one we live in now. The house hunting process is a challenge, but in all likelihood you won’t find the perfect accessible home on the market – you’ll need to look at something that will need adapting for safety, practicality, and fabulous design elements of course!

I wanted to share some of my top design tips for things you need to think about when looking to design or adapt a property for a wheelchair user – even if that’s your visiting Grandma!

This post won’t address architectural issues, bathrooms or kitchen, I’ve written other posts about those in the past and will be making some new posts soon with updated ideas – here I want to chat more generally about a couple of things that I think are important to get right in a wheelchair friendly home.

Leave space around the furniture

Space

No, not the kind that Mr Wheel Chic Home is obssessed with (if you’re also able to name all 12 men who’ve walked on the moon you’re in good company with him!) but space and spatial awareness in the home.

In an ideal world, we’d have furniture dotted around the room to mark out the TV zone, or the dining zone, but if you have a wheelchair and a small home, like me, you may have to commit the design crime of having all the furniture pushed back to the walls to make space for the wheelchair to roll through.

In the kitchen, ideally a space of 1.2 metres (3’11”) should be left between kitchen counters to enable a wheelchair the turning space required, and to allow the cupboard doors and drawers to open with a wheelchair in front of them . At a minimum, about 850cm (2’10”) could be sufficient but larger wheelchairs may struggle to turn. We have a long narrow kitchen workspace and my husband sometimes wheels to the dining area, turns round and comes back again if both of us are in the kitchen. My toes get run over quite frequently!

The kitchen with about 1m space

In the living room, we have had to forgo the coffee table, as it gets in the way of the wheelchair getting to the sofa and it prevents a transfer. We have two side tables but these aren’t always big enough for TV dinners and drinks. If you have a large room and the wheelchair user accesses their seat on the sofa from the side, rather than in front of it, you might still be able to keep a coffee table but you may have to lose the side table.

The living room sans coffee table!

Down the side of the bed you also need to leave as much space as possible for access and turning, again at least 1.2m width is ideal. In our bedroom however, we have moved the bed over as far as we can to the window, to make the space but he still can’t turn by the bed and has to reverse out of the room! He’s getting clever at it though!

Flooring

Having hard flooring throughout the home is easiest for a wheelchair, it allows the wheels to flow more freely and is also much easier to clean when muddy or rainy wheels come in from outside.

It doesn’t have to be wooden flooring, vinyl or laminate works just as well, or rubber and of course tiles. Ideally have the same flooring throughout so that there are no thresholds to navigate between rooms. It’s one of the issues in our house at the moment as we have a mix of carpet and laminate and the thresholds can prove challenging now and then.

Rugs are tricky for a wheelchair, they can get caught in the wheels and can make propelling the chair very difficult. There some lovely vinyl rugs around, or you could even use an outdoor rug if you really can’t bear to be without a rug. An outdoor or vinyl rug won’t have loose threads, they will be thin and smooth for the chair. Just make sure the edges are fully stuck down to the floor with rug tape for safety.

You could even stencil a design on the floor with paint and a top coat of varnish to mimic a rug!

Rugs and carpets can prove tricky!

Carpets are tricky but not impossible, go with a short pile carpet preferably in a synthetic material, we had a wool rug once and lost half of it in the rubber of the wheels! A carpet specialist will be able to advise the best type for your home and there are “wheelchair carpets” available – but a standard short pile should be ok for most people.

We currently have carpet in the living room and bedrooms but we do want to replace it all with hard flooring at some point as Mr Wheel Chic Home is finding it a struggle now.

Doors

Without doubt the easiest type of door to have in a wheelchair user’s home is a sliding door. It’s much easier and convenient for someone in a chair to reach over to close or open a sliding or pocket door than to navigate a door that opens more conventionally. They do require more floor and wall space to install so it’s not always a possibility.

You can get pocket doors that slide into a false wall, or a barn door that sits on the wall to a wheeled mechanism. Both are great options and each of them make great design statements!

Barn doors in the home of @LavendersLongshot

You can also get bi-folding internal doors which are a nice compromise if you don’t have the space for a sliding door. They will make it a little easier to a wheelchair user to reach and close.

Door widths in older properties in the UK are generally 2’6” (76cm) wide and these are just about big enough to allow a wheelchair through but ideally a 3ft (91cm) is preferable. New properties in the UK have wider doors as standard both for the front door and the internal doors.

We have widened a door in our home as the bathroom door was only 2ft (61cm) and the chair didn’t fit! It’s a messy business to widen a door but it should be less than a day’s work for a competent builder.

Our kitchen has a pocket door but it’s pretty narrow!

Even the smallest wheelchair takes up a lot of room, when turning from the hallway into a room, so if doors and hallways can be widened that would help otherwise (like us) you’ll be constantly repainting the walls and the woodwork from wheelchair knocks!

If the Space, Flooring and Doors are right in a wheelchair user’s home that’s a fair way to making it helpful and accessible for them. I don’t have all of this right in my own home but we continue to work on it step by step. Or ramp by ramp!

What other big ticket items are important for you when it comes to planning a space ?

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