How to make a beautiful home work for wheelchairs

A friend of mine is in a wheelchair now. Her home was built more than 40 years ago for an active, able-bodied family. I doubt the designers ever wondered if a wheelchair would fit through the kitchen door. So here is the answer - with difficulty.

Their architect also gave no thought to how one might roll a wheelchair from the car through the front door. A series of level changes - a concrete porch here, a step-up doorway there - act like little Mt. Everests for those who have trouble getting around.

The notion of "universal design," which promotes a built environment that everyone can live in comfortably no matter what their age or ability, has been around for awhile now. But a new book, "The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities," (Taunton Press, $27.95) gives readers page after page of color visuals to go with the ideas and instructions. It's also full of information for the able bodied.

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The notion of "universal design," which promotes a built environment that everyone can live in comfortably no matter what their age or ability, has been around for awhile now. But a new book, "The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities," (Taunton Press, $27.95) gives readers page after page of color visuals to go with the ideas and instructions. It's also full of information for the able bodied.

For instance, did you know that people with spinal cord injuries often have trouble regulating their body temperature? Several of the homes pictured in the book have heated floors and additional heating and cooling equipment to provide a cozy environment. The wheelchair-bound often cannot see out of windows as well as those who are standing, so lower windows offer a better view. That's a valuable thing if you don't get out as often as you would like.

The book and its focus are well-timed, since the Census Bureau reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability. According to a report, "Americans with Disabilities 2010," the total number of people with a disability increased by 2.2 million since 2005 and there are more now reporting severe disabilities than eight years ago.

Accessible homes have much more than just grab bars in the bathroom. They start, says author Deborah Pierce, with the path to the door. Instead of steps, accessible homes have entryways that are level with the adjoining sidewalk. Walkway materials can be differentiated by color and texture that make them easier to navigate for those with low vision.

Better design enables residents to perform normal activities. A low stove or sink with no cabinet underneath let a wheelchair slide close enough to work and foster independence. My friend used to love to cook, but from a wheelchair she cannot reach across her countertops or stove.

Other basics: Place electrical outlets higher on the wall within easy reach; roll-in showers are easier for everyone, even those who walk in. Have at least one mirror tilted or lower on the wall.

A common problem in the homes of many elderly is clutter, but too much furniture, piles of magazines and so forth make a disabled person's life even more confining. Shoes on the floor, shopping bags that need to be emptied, an extra chair in the kitchen -these types of things keep a disabled person trapped and unable to navigate from one room to another.

The book also addresses the outdoors. It can be very difficult to roll an adult in a wheelchair over grass, which means that they rarely get off the pavement. In one back yard, the ground was carefully leveled and covered with artificial turf. In another case, permeable pavers were planted with grass. The pavers keep the ground firm under the wheels, and the grass appears to have filled in completely.

Gardening is much easier for the disabled with raised beds. You see them outside nursing homes, but they can be built around homes as well.

Retrofitting an older home, such as my friend's, can be daunting, but this book will give you some ideas. Paying for it is another issue; some grants and insurance moneys are available:

Other resources include:

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging