15 Tips on Designing a Home That’s Comfortable for Those With Disabilities

15 Tips on Designing a Home That’s Comfortable for Those With Disabilities

Additions and Remodels
By Dikran Seferian May 25, 2022

A considerable number of Americans are known to live with a disability, many of which need to use a wheelchair or another mobility device. The Americans With Disabilities Act, otherwise known as the ADA, has set out various codes and recommendations making sure that those who are differently-abled can equally and conveniently access public spaces.

Since these regulations don’t apply to private homes, unfortunately, many of them tend to lack the interior design for special needs. Although not everyone has the same disability, Dr. Brittany Ferry recommends numerous universal design features that you can easily incorporate into any home. You can also include these in building plans so that homeowners with mobility issues can live comfortably and in style. Dr. Ferry is an occupational therapist with years of experience in home modifications for disabilities. 

What Is an Accessible Design?

Officially referred to as universal design, accessible design involves laying out interior and building plans that account for everyone, regardless of ability or age. In other words, it is a design process that specifically accounts for the needs of those with disabilities and other mobility issues. ‘Inclusive’ and ‘barrier-free’ design are other terms that people, as well as professionals in the field, use interchangeably. 

1. Wide Front Entrance

A common feature to consider for wheelchair-accessible homes is a wide front entrance that allows homeowners with limited mobility to navigate with ease. The pathway should also be flat and non-slippery to ensure safety. Moreover, it’s a good idea for the front door not to have a front step as it can be a tripping hazard, if not a complete barrier. 

2. Lever Door Handles

Lever handles are the preferable type of door handles for inclusive home designs.

Lever handles are the preferable type of door handles for inclusive home designs.

Whether someone is able to use their arms or hands or not, lever handles on doors are easy to maneuver. Another upside of this ADA-mandated feature is that it doesn’t pose a difficulty for those in wheelchairs.

3. Spacious Entryway

An entryway that meets ADA standards should be at least 32 inches wide with the door fully open. Many designers, however, suggest the opening to be between 36 to 42 inches for those who maneuver their own wheelchairs. This additional space helps in eliminating the risk of busting knuckles. An open concept living space may already feature this convenience.

4. Space for Knees

Knee space is another detail to account for in wheelchair-accessible house plans. This means doing without lower cabinets under kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, and home office desks. You may also want to consider going for dining room tables with plenty of leg space underneath.

5. Side-by-Side Fridge

An accessible kitchen design involves going for a fridge with side-by-side compartments.

An accessible kitchen design involves going for a fridge with side-by-side compartments.

Many refrigerators often come with a stacked layout, with the freezer either on top or on the bottom. However, this design doesn’t particularly take special needs into consideration. A more preferable unit for an accessible kitchen design is a side-by-side one, where both compartments are within reach. 

6. Accessible Microwave

Not only does a touch-control microwave integrated into a lower cabinet provide convenient functionality, but also opens up plenty of space on the countertop, creating a less-cluttered appearance. Keep in mind that the base of the microwave needs to be 15 to 37 inches from the ground for it to meet ADA requirements. 

7. Ramps and Rails

If possible, consider removing short steps and replacing them with permanent ramps that incline gradually. You will also need to add handrails in keeping with ADA codes, as well as to cater to the special needs of the homeowner. In any case, it’s always smart to include this feature in handicap-accessible house plans.

In the case of a multi-story house, you can consider going for an in-home elevator if it’s financially and physically possible. The elevator would normally go on the back of the house from the outside, or on the inside where two stacked closet spaces exist. Installing an in-home elevator would normally cost anywhere between $10,000 to $40,000 and can be designed to correspond with your interior scheme.

8. Automated Curtains

Homeowners often make do with curtains that open and close manually. But for homes where one or more of the residents have disabilities, such curtains may not be very convenient to use. Automated units, on the other hand, can allow the differently-abled homeowner to operate them at the click of a button.

9. Space to Roam

Make sure to provide enough room for navigation when designing a home for those with limited mobility.

Make sure to provide enough room for navigation when designing a home for those with limited mobility.

Bearing in mind that wheelchairs need at least 5 feet of space to turn around, it’s always a great idea to go for an open floor plan. Wide walkways in living rooms, for instance, are ideal for both wheelchairs and medical walkers. Consider accenting the open floor design of the room with modern, light-colored furniture. You may also want to avoid having too much furniture when designing a barrier-free living space. 

10. Smooth Transitions

Another smart idea when laying out handicap house plans is to go for flooring that seamlessly transitions from one room to another. This means eliminating the threshold strips that usually go along doorways between rooms. Should that not be possible, you can find ADA-compliant transition strips at most flooring and hardware stores.

The same applies to the front and back doors. Exterior doorways that are up to ADA standards should consist of a recessed threshold that’s no higher than a quarter of an inch.

On the topic of seamless transitions, it’s also a great idea to go completely doorless — except for the exterior doors, of course. Having fewer barriers reduces the risk of getting stuck or having a hard time navigating in general. 

11. Room to Park

Every wheelchair-accessible home needs to have enough space for residents with mobility issues to park their wheelchairs. This is especially important in bathrooms when the homeowner has to use the toilet. You may also want to go for a bottomless bathroom sink design to facilitate accessibility. Low-set mirrors allow differently-abled homeowners to see that they’re looking great as always. Alternatively, a pivot mirror that you can angle upwards or downwards allows everyone in the household to have a comfortable view. 

12. Strategic Styling

A bathroom designed with accessibility in mind doesn’t have to sacrifice style at all — whether or not you hire an interior designer. A walk-in shower, for instance, can offer a sleek appearance while allowing residents with disabilities to go in and out easily.

As for the flooring, small penny tiles provide an aesthetically pleasing texture in addition to creating a non-slippery surface. An added or built-in bench with grab bars in the shower is a must for maximum safety. Make sure, however, that the grab bars are tested to handle the weight of the user. 

13. Form and Function

A mindful yet stylish interior design is ideal for catering to special needs residents.

A mindful yet stylish interior design is ideal for catering to special needs residents.

Combining form and function can really help in designing a disability-friendly home. For example, a stylish bedroom bench provides a comfortable spot for getting dressed or putting on and removing prosthetics.

Meanwhile, a beautiful dresser on the side of the bed serves as a storage space for prosthetics and other mobility equipment when not in use. This is also one of the main measures you can take when laying out wheelchair-friendly small handicap house plans.

14. Easy-to-Reach Surfaces

At least 50 percent of storage spaces should be easy to access. Daily-use items such as tableware, clothing, and office supplies should go in lower shelves and cabinets. Items that you use occasionally like formal wear and seasonal decor can be stored higher up.

In the kitchen, home cooks with limited mobility will need countertops to be 28 to 32 inches from the ground, instead of the standard 36 inches. The same applies to kitchen sinks, home office desks, and other surfaces that special needs residents regularly work on. 

15. Mindful Outdoor Space

Spending time in the backyard, gardening, and just soaking in some vitamin D can do wonders for mental health. Many outdoor spaces, however, are often unsuitable for walkers, wheelchairs, and other mobility aids. Ground coverings such as grass or gravel can make navigating a hassle, whereas uneven terrain is simply dangerous.

Consider separating garden beds with wide pathways in between. Make sure to level off the yard so that wheelchair users can enjoy the outdoor space in safety and comfort.


Written by
Dikran Seferian

Written by Dikran Seferian