by Carole Dodge, O.T.R., C.H.T.
Ideally, hallways should be wide enough to allow a person with a wheelchair or walker to pass. That means halls that are at least 42 inches wide and doorways that are at least 36 inches wide. Sometimes you can make an existing doorway wide enough by replacing a standard hinge with a “swing-clear hinge.” This kind of hinge provides greater clearance than a standard hinge.
Put handrails on both sides of stairways. Stairways, both interior and exterior, should have handrails on both sides. Handrails are especially helpful for those who have had a hip or knee replacement or for those who use a cane. Also, think about adding lighting above the stairway, or step lighting on the sides of steps, to improve vision and reduce the chance of falls.
Consider a walk-in/roll-in shower. These types of showers avoid the high “curbs” of traditional showers and are easier to get in and out of. Other features that make bathing easier and safer are a bath/shower seat, a handheld adjustable showerhead with easy-to-operate controls, and lever faucets.
Install grab bars in the bathroom. Grab bars are needed for safety in any shower/tub area. They can be mounted on a wall or attached on the side of a tub with clamps. When possible, put a grab bar next to the toilet. Work with your installer to ensure that grab bars are placed securely and are at the right height and position for easy and safe use.
Store items in an accessible location. You want to do as little reaching or stooping as possible. And you want easy access to those things you use most often. Slide-out drawers or revolving shelves in the kitchen are helpful. So are shelves that you can adjust to varying heights. New cabinet designs let you store dishes vertically and raise dishwashers for easier access. Raising the dishwasher is a practical solution for anyone who has back pain or trouble bending over. Again, consult a professional at a home improvement store or arrange for one to come to your home to show you all of the possible options.
Let there be light. Make light switches easy to reach and easy to use. Rocker switches let you turn a light on or off with just a tap of the hand. Motion-activated lighting and adapters that make a lamp go on or off when you touch it are other good options. Ideally, outlets and light switches should be 18 to 48 inches above the floor so they can be reached easily from a wheelchair.
Get easy-to-grip handles. Gripping and turning knobs can be painful when joints hurt. Lever handles make opening doors and using faucets easier. If changing all your handles at once costs too much, begin by adapting the doors you open and shut most often, such as the bathroom door. D-shaped pull handles or touch springs for cabinets also reduce stress on the hands. (When a cabinet has touch springs, all you have to do is press the cabinet door and it opens.) Refrigerators with handles you can slide your hand under are easier to pull open.
Think about work surfaces and appliances. Front-loading washers and dryers are increasingly popular. As with dishwashers, they can be raised off the ground to make loading and unloading easier. Multiple-level counter (or table) heights are also helpful in work areas because they allow you to do tasks either sitting or standing. Controls on appliances such as a stove should be up front for easy use. Side-by-side refrigerators are easier to use because you don’t have to stoop or reach so much.
Think about your floors. To help prevent a fall, remove throw rugs and put down nonskid flooring in the bathroom or kitchen. Nonskid flooring can also help prevent falls in entryways during bad weather. Low-pile rugs and carpets are easier for wheelchair users to move around on, and they are easier to push a vacuum cleaner across.
Take the heat off. An anti-scald valve for your shower is a good idea, especially if you are not able to jump out of the way of a blast of hot water. Also, counter surfaces made from heat-resistant materials allow you to slide pots and pans from the stove right onto the counter.
To identify more places in your home where you can apply the principles of universal design, take a walk around and make a checklist. You may decide that the kitchen gives you the most trouble, or that it is the bedroom that needs the most work. Use the following room-by-room tour for helpful ideas.
Entrance. Start with the entrance. Features that can make it easier to get in and out of your home include keyless locks with a remote control or keypad. Both put less stress on the small joints of the hand and are easier to use than a set of keys. Lever handles are much easier on the hands than round doorknobs. And for wheelchair users, push-button power doors can increase independence.
Adding a handy shelf or bench near an outside door allows you to put down packages so that your hands are free while you unlock the door. Also, getting rid of thresholds makes it easier to get in and out and decreases the risk of a fall. If there are steps you find it difficult to go up and down safely, think about having a ramp built. Motion-activated lighting will make your approach to the door safer.
Last Reviewed on June 27, 2012
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