A Universal Home: Safety & Accessibility for All

A Universal Home: Safety & Accessibility for All

  • shower grab bar

Byggmeister client and occupational therapist, Emily DeGroat wants you to stay home. More accurately, she wants you to be able to live safely and happily in your own home no matter what physical limitations you or a loved one might face. If you are renovating, building, or just taking a fresh look at your environment, Emily has some valuable tips for applying universal design concepts to ensure your house can be your home for years to come...

Do you mostly work with older people?
Not always. Various medical conditions can affect mobility, like being on crutches or recovering from surgery or stroke. Sometimes I'm helping with children who have disabilities. I work with an older population more often, but it could also be someone who broke an ankle playing soccer.

What are the biggest challenges most homes present?
The first thing we ask a client before discharge from the hospital is how many steps are there to get into your home and are there railings. That can really make a difference between going home or going to rehab first. If you want your home to be accessible, add railings even if it is only one or two steps, and do it on both sides of the stairs. Doorway widths are another issue. The standard is 32 inches but if you have a wheelchair or a walker, you can't get through that. If you need to get into the bathroom, you'll end up leaving the walker behind or turning it sideways and that's dangerously unbalanced. Anyone doing bathroom renovations anyway should think about things like doorways and grab bars.

Besides grab bars, what bathroom changes are useful?
One note about grab bars, there are nice ones out there that look like towel bars and you can use them for that. But, unlike towel bars, grab bars need to be mounted to studs so they can hold a person's weight, so a professional should install them. Other things include having a walk-in shower stall instead of a tub-shower. If you do have a tub, put in a detachable, hand-held showerhead that allows for someone to wash while seated on a bench. You might also consider a handicap height toilet if you are buying a new one anyway. They are just a few inches higher but much easier to get on and off of and otherwise, you can't see a difference. Think about moving around in the bathroom in general. If you don't want grab bars, sink and countertop placement can be very helpful as something to hold onto for balance. The same is true in kitchens.

What is the best countertop placement in kitchens?
If you need your hands and arms to help support you, then you don't have a way to carry a hot cup of coffee or a dinner plate from the counter to the table. Placing an island so that it can be a waypoint between a cooking area and a table, or even the family room can assist with that. There are also simple, inexpensive adaptations, like making sure people can reach the most commonly used things. Put those in cabinets that are at eye level or chair level.

What are other areas to look at if you are renovating?
Many houses have all the bedrooms upstairs, which can end up being a problem. Consider a first floor room that could turn into a bedroom, because no one wants to have to put a bed in the dining room. Having a full, accessible bath on the first floor is also a good idea. Then there are little things that can make a big difference like choosing levered door handles instead of doorknobs, and placing wall switches and outlets so they are easily accessible. Don't make wall switches too high and don't have outlets that are so low you have to bend way over to reach them. Eighteen inches off the floor is a good rule of thumb. Another biggie people don't think about a lot is lighting.

How does lighting impact accessibility?
Especially in hallways and stairways, if you can't see well you may not be able to judge where to step and it can be disorienting. Switches need to be at the top and bottom of the stairs, and motion sensor lights or nightlights are also helpful. In the middle of the night, you want enough light to be able to get somewhere without groping around because that puts you at risk for a fall. So do throw rugs and area rugs by the way.

Throw away the throw rugs?
Throw rugs, clutter, furniture placement, these are all things that can hinder movement and are trip hazards. If you really want throw rugs, make sure they aren't worn or torn and put sticky tape on them to hold them down. One of my current clients tripped on a rug that was not skid-proofed and broke his arm. And, his kitchen area is far from his living room with no go-between surfaces for moving things, which is a problem because he also uses a cane. He had another fall because he lost his balance trying to carry a plate. He is still sponge bathing because he has a small bathroom with a tub that doesn't accommodate a bench and no grab bars so he doesn't feel comfortable without something to hold onto.

That really demonstrates the impact home design can have on your life, doesn't it?
Definitely. But beyond planning for unexpected turns in our own physical condition, think about it as creating an environment that is user friendly for everyone. You maybe young and fit, but maybe your parents are getting older and you want them to still be able to visit. How about a friend who ends up needing a wheelchair? It is a universal design concept — designing homes and environments so everyone can use them and doing it in a way that doesn't look like it is designed for disabilities. You will have a home you can stay in as you grow older and you will be able to welcome anyone regardless of physical challenges.