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How to Design Safe, Accessible Homes

Designing an accessible home means making home improvements and modifications to the house that increase safety, mobility, and independence for aging older adults or people with physical disabilities. To ensure consistent quality in these modifications, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a set of guidelines to follow for designing home accessibility features.

Home accessibility guidelines are typically enforced in public spaces such as restaurants, stores, parks, and government buildings, but homeowners can also benefit from using them in their private residences. These guidelines cover all home areas – from the front lawn to the back door and the garage. In this article, we’re going to look at these guidelines, the various features you can install in each room of the house, and tips to make your home more accessible.

Accessibility Upgrades for Outdoor Areas

Accessible homes wouldn’t be complete without first upgrading the outdoor areas. Better accessibility in outdoor spaces like driveways, entrances, backyards, and garages means improving ease of use for a mobility device and enhancing the safety of these areas. These modifications include ramp angle and height, door width, and pathway width. Here are some tips for a more accessible outdoor space.

#1. Accessible Driveways

An accessible driveway has a smooth surface to prevent slipping and the slope at a safe angle. The slope requirements for a driveway should increase by no more than 1 foot every 20 feet of horizontal distance. Accessibility experts have calculated this ratio as having the safest slope since it gives just enough assistance without it being too steep.

Most home entrances, such as steps and driveways, are not level with the home’s foundation. When adding an accessible driveway, the slope will have to match the level of the foundation and act as a continuous ramp from the outside of the house to the inside.

#2. Garages For Wheelchair Users

Providing enough space in a garage is a crucial accessibility feature for people with a disability. The garage should have at least 5 to 8 feet of clearance on each side of the vehicle to allow loading and unloading a wheelchair, scooter, or any oother mobility device.

For example, homeowners who own an adaptive van and an electric wheelchair may want to consider organizing their garage to allow a working width of 8 feet next to the vehicle and a depth of 30 feet for better maneuverability and storage.

In addition to adding more room in the garage, you can install extra safety features to make it a safer space. Standard devices such as push-button garage door openers, motion-sensing lights, and keypad or voice-activated locks and lights are ideal ways to make your garage safer. These features also help people with a disability from spending more time than needed to access and use their garage.

#3. Accessible Home Entrances

Getting in and out of your home must be easy for aging seniors or people with a disability. One way you can achieve this is by upgrading stairs to stairless entrances to use a ramp to reach the first-floor level. The guideline requirement for these ramps is an increase of 1 inch in height for every foot of length at the steepest. 1 inch rise in 20 inches of horizontal run is even better.

In addition to safer ramp slopes, doors should be at a width of at least 32 inches at a minimum, and if possible, with the option of expanding to 36 inches. You can also install pocket doors to make these larger entrance areas accessible for mobility devices such as wheelchairs or scooters.

Replacing all the round door knobs with lever-style door handles makes entrances easier to access. Doorbells placed 40 to 48 inches above the floor are more accessible and are easier to operate. Installing motion-sensor lights helps when you navigate around the entrance but also provides additional security, especially for people of older age.

#4. Updates to Backyards

For most homeowners, their backyards are their sanctuary. Ensuring this special space is accessible is just as important as any other outdoor area. One of the accessibility features for backyards is to include wide, paved pathways at a minimum of 42 inches so wheelchairs can move through them easily.

Backyard patios and decks need to be level and flat and include ramps. You must make several modifications if there is a swimming pool in the backyard, such as sloped entrances, handrails, a wheelchair ramp, and curb-less edges.

Purchasing sturdy, fixed, and permanent outdoor furniture is also a key feature for safety. Pathways around gardens and between furniture should be at least 60 inches wide for wheelchairs to turn around.

Accessible Upgrades to Make Everyday Life Inside the Home Safe

Most areas across the country have home designs that are best modified to make sense for people with a disability. This varies with climate and homebuilding approaches. Improving accessibility and providing ease of use and comfort is the main part of what makes a home accessible.

All of these modifications provide ease of movement through hallways, into rooms, and across the various rooms in the home. Let’s look at some of the main home improvement ideas for an accessible home.

#1. Accessible Upgrades for Interior Doors and Hallways

The most common areas of concern for people with a disability or aging seniors are wider hallways and wider doorways. Hallways should be approximately 48 inches wide, and interior door passages should be around 36 inches wide to accommodate flexibility for wheelchair users.

Modifying interior doors from the standard 32 to 36 inches may require further retrofits to hallways and other areas. Installing lever handles on these interior doors allows for easier grip and ease of opening.

Floors should have a consistent level from room to room without transition ledges, even short ones. The floor’s surface should be smooth and not have any carpets, throw rugs, or area rugs which could create problems for people using an electric wheelchair or a walker.

#2. Modified Seating and Electronics: Accessible Upgrades for the Living Room

The living room is one area of a home where we relax, watch TV, or read a book. Arranging the furniture to minimize clutter and create wide pathways in a straight line through the room is one of the ways to maximize accessibility. Let’s look at what modifications you can do in the living room:

  • Seating – Altering the seating height and adding a variety of seating styles, like wooden chairs and padded sofas, will create more options and flexibility for seating. Anchoring furniture to the walls will minimize the risk of them falling over or moving. Installing motorized lift chairs and recliners will reduce the movement of getting in and out. 

  • Devices – With the addition of Smart TVs, you can customize them to include adaptive features such as contrasting colors on the menu, customized caption placement, and presets that affect both brightness and volume.

All of these accessibility modifications create a more comfortable and functional living space. Hallways, walkways, and room layouts allow for better flexibility of movement for people with a disability or aging seniors.

#3. Lower Counters and Modified Appliances: Accessible Upgrades for the Kitchen

The kitchen is an area of the house that contains several unique functions, and each of these functions requires modification for accessibility. Many modifications are needed, from creating the correct counter depth to the right cabinet height to modifying the various kitchen appliances. Let’s look at the various accessibility upgrades that you can do for a kitchen.

  • Cabinets – Creating an accessible cabinet involves several design changes. It includes everything from more storage to building drawers into bases of the cabinets. You can also install pull-down shelves and easy opening and closing cabinets in a D-shape or U-shape to help boost accessibility. Homeowners benefit from installing motorized pull-down cabinets for heavy and bulky items.

  • Countertops & Sink – Countertops and sinks need to be accessible, and items should be reachable. There should be a 27-inch to 30-inch clearance under the sink, free from pipes and anything else obstructing the area. The sink should sit at wheelchair height, which is roughly 44 to 48 inches, and faucets should provide no more than 5 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure for safety. You can install these faucets with sensors or touch functions for operation.

  • Fridge, Stove & Oven – For safety and accessibility, these items require special equipment. Controls from refrigerators and stoves should be no more than 48 inches high and you should be able to operate them with one hand. Ovens will have the controls installed at the front, and the doors will be easy to open. You should be able to fit them into a custom cabinet at the perfect height. The dishwasher will be at a maximum height of 32 inches from the floor, and you should be able to operate it easily with one hand. All of these design features make a kitchen safe and easy to use.

#4. Lift Beds and Pull Down Shelves: Accessible Upgrades for Bedrooms

You’ll spend a third of your life in your bedroom. It makes sense that a bedroom should provide comfort, style, and also accessibility. Various retrofits improve use and function by eliminating clutter and obstacles on the floor space and entrances to the bedroom.

You can make these modifications without having to do too much remodeling, regardless of the age of the house. Here are some of the more common bedroom modifications:

  • Beds & Attachments – A bed that is accessible improves sleep but also helps a person get up so they can make their way to other parts of the home. Several styles of bed lifts are available that provide different mattress heights with a push of a button. With various bed accessories like a bed rail, ladders or cane supports, you can turn a standard bed into an accessible bed.

  • Closets – Storage is a key feature for homes. Accessible homes provide the same level of storage in adaptively designed closets. With a larger width for a wheelchair and shelving at a maximum of 48 inches in height, you can modify closets for people to maximize their closet space. Sensors for lights and pull-down closet rods are a way to access closet items safely.

#5. Grab Bars and Benches: Accessible Upgrades for Bathrooms

Another area of the home that requires a lot of modification is the bathroom. Most designs do not consider the space needed for a wheelchair to turn around. In addition to expanding the size of the bathroom, you should also consider upgrades to the fixtures like the shower, bathtub, toilet, or sink.

  • Shower, Tub & Toilet – The size of an accessible bathroom will be larger than a standard-sized bathroom. The area around the toilet should be roughly 60 inches all around, and the seat height should be no less than 17 inches. Install grab bars around the toilet to help improve ease of use. Bathrooms with a walk-in shower shouldn’t have any transition or curbs. Converting a tub into a walk-in shower will also increase accessibility. Adding grab bars, a bench, and faucets installed at 48 inches above the floor creates a safe space for aging seniors or people with a disability.

  • Sinks & Vanities – A reachable sink and vanity are one of the more important features in a bathroom. The sink should be no higher than 34 inches with clearance underneath for a wheelchair. Faucets that have lever handles are easier to use with one hand. The sink should be at least 60 inches away from the toilet, and it should also be far enough away from the door for accessibility. A mirror can be installed on an angle or as a full-length floor mirror.

Installing Smart Home Appliances For Accessibility

From voice-activated light switches to modified locks and appliances, smart home devices are user-friendly ways to make a more accessible home. You can incorporate several great smart device ideas from the front door to bedrooms and bathrooms to help you navigate and operate your home.

Smart Home Checklist

Most smart devices in an accessible home use a hub, a place where people can install, set up, and customize a wide range of devices and appliances. With these smart devices, it minimizes time spent maneuvering and operating certain fixtures. A smart place design checklist could include the following:

  • Security systems complete with keypad or remote-controlled settings

  • Light switches that you can control by voice command or are modified to be lower to the floor.

  • Voice control smart TVs and sound systems.

  • Smart screens that offer real-time access to accommodate various electrical devices such as fridges, stoves, microwaves, lights, and more.

  • Smart plugs that automate almost any piece of electrical equipment.

Even though some things modify a standard universal design, various financial programs and grants can cover many of these modifications. These programs and grants provide money for accessible home improvements, and many homeowners can claim the money spent on these modifications on their tax returns. Contact your local government for more information about the various grants and programs.


Creating accessible homes is a highly personal experience. From choosing the color of the tile to the style, materials, and design of doorways, walls, ceilings, floors, and more, you can customize the home to your liking and taste.

Whether you’ve designed home accessibility improvements for elderly people or people with disabilities, some of the items mentioned here help provide mobility, safety, style, and comfort to your home. From the first step at the front entrance straight to the backyard, these modifications make your happy home an accessible home.

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