A Complete Guide to Make a Wheelchair Accessible Home and Business

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Whether the change is meant to adjust to a disability, done in preparation for aging in place, or simply to comply with guidelines to provide equal access to everyone – modifying a home or a public accommodation can seem like a daunting task.

A Complete Guide in Making a Wheelchair Accessible Home and Business

To help you through the process, this article offers a comprehensive guide of essential home and establishment modifications, including their recommended measurements, to help you modify your home and/or your business to be wheelchair accessible.

3 Important Considerations Before Doing Modifications for Wheelchair Accessibility

Before doing any rearrangements and installations, you need to be equipped with vital information to guide you in the decision-making process.

Knowing the specific needs of the senior and specially-abled people (especially for home modifications), federal policies and standards, and which professionals and experts you can contact will help with the planning and preparation for the home and business modification.

Infographic on Necessary Home and Business Modifications for Wheelchair Accessibility

Individualized Needs of Seniors and People with Disabilities

When buildings and establishments are built, they usually follow specific guidelines and principles of Universal Design to provide equal access to everyone. That is, unless the establishments or buildings are old, which may necessitate rebuilding and modification to comply with the law.

While these same guidelines can be utilized when doing home modifications, it is also essential to consider the senior’s specific needs. Important considerations include their physical status, capacities, condition, and prognosis. Some may need accommodations for poor postural control, deformities, and other needs.

Suppose the user has a progressive disease, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, one may opt for a powered wheelchair instead of a manual wheelchair to accommodate their changing capacities and needs.

This decision changes the space you need to consider since the space needed for a powered wheelchair is bigger than that of a smaller standard wheelchair.

Federal Policies and Standards

It is vital to know the legal rights, policies, and standards provided by several federal laws. Moreover, business owners need to know these since the law requires that public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants, stores, malls, parks, and schools, be accessible to all.

Here are some of the important federal laws and legislation, guidelines, and standards to look into as you plan your modification:

Experts You Can Hire

While some modifications can be done in a DIY fashion, an important consideration is to ask for guidance and expert advice from professionals. Here are some of them:

  • Design/Building Contractors
  • Universal Design Certified Professionals
  • Architects and designers with experience in accessibility
  • Occupational Therapists

A Complete Guide in Making a Wheelchair Accessible Home and Business

11 Necessary Home and Business Modifications for Wheelchair Accessibility

1. Entrances

Front door entrances may be difficult or even impossible to access for wheelchair users, especially if the entrances have front yard steps.

Wheelchair ramps are low-cost options to create no-step entrances, enabling wheelchair users to access front doors easily. The ramp’s slope should minimize steepness while ensuring that it is not too long for an entrance.

Here are typical ramp specifications:

  • The ratio of height to length for a covered indoor or outdoor ramp is at least 1:12 (for every inch of height, there are 12 inches of length)
  • The landing at the top should have 5×5 feet space for adequate maneuvering
  • The landing at the bottom must have at least 5 feet of level area at the termination point
  • Recommended width of wheelchair ramps ranges from 36 to 48 inches with a handrail grasping surface of 30 to 34 inches high

Several ramp designs and styles suit different needs, such as portable ramps, modular ramps, and threshold ramps. If there is limited space to accommodate a ramp or the entrance is very steep, installing a lift may be an alternative.

2. Stairs

If the senior lives in a house with different levels, taking a wheelchair up and down stairs can be cumbersome. In such a case, installing a stairlift might be an option. You can either permanently modify your home or purchase a portable stair chair lift. 

3. Doors

Internal doors in a house should be at least 32 inches wide. This should be good enough for most wheelchairs; however, 36 inches wide doors provide a more comfortable passage. Installing Z-hinges or swing-away hinges may add an additional 1-inch clearance to doorways.

You may also opt to remove the door trim (also called casing) or remove the door altogether and replace them with curtains. Another option, especially if you also plan to remove walls, is to install sliding doors to create more space in the doorway and the room.

Navigating door thresholds may also require additional effort from a wheelchair user. This can be addressed by minimizing the height of thresholds, removing them, or replacing them with a cushioned material.

Doorknobs can also be a problem, especially when your hands are maneuvering a wheelchair. Replacing doorknobs with press-lever handles, push/pull bars, or automatic doors may help ease accessibility.

In an emergency, especially for internal doors, you might need to be able to open a door lock from the outside. Similarly, installing the right door lock for a dementia patient will reduce the probability of the elderly inadvertently wandering outside.

4. Hallways

The first step in making a wheelchair-friendly hallway is to clear all obstructions and barriers such as side tables and low hanging frames on walls.

To accommodate wheelchairs, hallway and passage width should be at least 36 inches. However, 48 inches is the required minimum by ADA.

If a turn is necessary to enter a room along the hallway, you have to ensure ample space for wheelchairs to make a 360-degree turn. A 36-inch clearance in all directions or a minimum of a 5-foot turning radius will be enough for most wheelchairs to make an unimpeded turn. However, bigger wheelchairs may need a 6-foot turning radius.

A Complete Guide in Making a Wheelchair Accessible Home and Business

5. Flooring

Removing rugs, thresholds, and other potential barriers are the first step in making the flooring wheelchair-friendly. If you do not want to completely remove them, buying wheelchair-friendly rugs will make things more convenient.

You also want to make sure that the flooring is slip-resistant and easy to maneuver a wheelchair in. Also, you may want to choose a surface that will wear better even after extensive wheelchair use.

6. Lighting

The ideal wheelchair-friendly height for light switches is 36 inches. Any switches over 36 inches from the floor or in hard to reach places should be relocated to be more accessible to wheelchair users.

It is a good idea to have night lights that automatically turn on at night, installed throughout the areas used by someone in a wheelchair. This will make sure that the elderly person does not have to fumble for a light switch if she or he gets up late at night.. 

7. Toilet

Toilet modifications will depend mainly on the available space. Users can opt for a wall-mounted toilet or a standard one. ADA recommends that the top of the toilet seat should be 17-19 inches from the floor. If you do not want to install a tall toilet, it is a good idea to install a toilet seat riser.

Padded toilet seats make things easier for the elderly. Similarly, using bidet toilet seats ensures easier cleaning. Both these modifications are inexpensive but go a long way in helping seniors.

Grab bars installed at the correct height (33 to 36 inches from the floor) help a wheelchair user navigate easier inside the toilet. The placement of dispensers, sinks, and mirrors should also be considered. Easy-to-use taps and low sinks also provide ease in independent toilet use.

Business establishments should ensure they have accessible toilets with appropriate signages. They should be accessible without the need to go up or down steps and be on an accessible pathway (including aisles and corridors) whose width should contain at least 32 inches of usable space).

Toilet doors should open outwards to accommodate for situations of people falling on the toilet floor. Toilet doors should follow the recommended door width of 32-inches to allow for easy maneuvering. Toilet doorways should require 5 pounds or less pressure to open.

Please visit ADA Standards on Accessible Design (here) for more details on ADA-compliant toilet specifications, including sink, mirror, dispenser, and urinal heights.

8. Showers

Curbless showers and roll-in showers allow for easy maneuvering for wheelchair users. In these showers, the shower entrance is level with the floor and slope down to the drain.

A portable shower chair is another viable option if the current shower is accessible. To allow for easy transfers using a shower transfer bench, a minimum of 36 inches of space is required. For a more permanent solution, a shower seat can be mounted to the wall as well.

It is important to make the shower floor non-slippery. A non-slip bathmat will be extremely handy. Grab bars should be present in the bathing area to reduce slipping and falls risks.

Handheld shower heads with at least a 60-inch hose are ideal for seated bathers. It is also crucial that faucet controls, bath towels, and other personal items are within reach. For more details, read our article on bathroom alterations for the elderly.

Finally, while it is not a bathroom alteration, gurney beds for shower help bathe an elderly person who can not sit. They are useful in the case of palliative care patients.

9. Bedrooms

The edges of the bed frame should have at least 36-inches of space on each side to allow for easy wheelchair access. Ideally, both sides and the foot of the bed should allow for a 5-foot turning radius for easy navigation.

Having a 36-inch clearance from obstacles such as cabinets and other furniture given enough room for a wheelchair user to maneuver. , aside from the 36-inch way width.

Mattress height should accommodate the height of the wheelchair for easy transfers. The standard wheelchair height is 19-20 inches from the floor. Thus, the total bed height should not be taller than 23 inches.

10. Kitchen

Kitchen modifications for wheelchair users include lowering countertops to 28 to 30 inches. It is a good idea to limit the countertop depth to 30 inches.

To accommodate for wheelchair leg rests, ensure that there is enough knee and leg space for countertops and sinks. This should be around 8 to 11 inches deep and 27 inches high. Taps should also be easy to use.

Use low storage spaces so that wheelchair users can easily access items. The same goes for appliances, which should be lowered to a maximum height of 31-inches. Also, it is recommended to use an ADA-compliant dishwasher, fridge, and microwave in the kitchen.

11. Garage/ Parking

The garage area should be at least 6 feet wider than the vehicle width to allow wheelchair navigation in front of and behind the car. If you are using a wheelchair carrier, please accommodate for its length, along with that of the car.

Doors from the garage into the house or yard should be at least 36 inches in width. If any barriers or obstructions are there that can not be removed, it is best to use a ramp. The garage door opener and light switches should be placed near the garage and home entrance door at a height that is accessible for the wheelchair user.

For establishments, parking spaces should require the shortest route of travel from the parking to the building entrance. Parking spaces should be 96-inch wide with an adjacent aisle of 60-inches.

Curb ramps from the parking spaces should have textured non-slip surfaces and have a gradient of 1:20 or 1-inch rise for every 20-inch slope. On the other hand, ramps along the accessible route should have at least a 1:12 gradient; however, ADA prefers a gradient between 1:16 to 1:20.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the minimum doorway width for wheelchair access?

A: Doors have to be at least 32 inches to accommodate wheelchairs.

Q: What is the minimum width for hallways for wheelchair access?

A: To accommodate wheelchairs, hallway width should be at least 36 inches. However, 48 inches is the required minimum by ADA.

Q: What is the minimum space to allow wheelchairs a full 360 degree turn?

A: A 36-inch clearance in all directions or a minimum of a 5-foot turning radius will be enough for most wheelchairs to make an unimpeded turn.