Make Your House Your Home

In Vancouver, BC, architecture firm Acton Ostry renovated a 1950s ranch house on a sloped site for a partially paralyzed man. Photo Acton Ostry

Most ready-made buildings were not made ready for wheelchair users. So, customize your residence. In no time your house will really be your home

Making your home accessible can mean many things. It may need only a few changes, such as a ramp to the entrance or grab bars in the bathroom. On the other hand, it may require even more involved modifications such as wider doorways and hallways, lower windows, or an elevator or lift.


Sometimes it seems all the world is a staircase. Many places are wheelchair accessible because they have ramps, but others are not.

Ramps are a safe way to replace steeper sets of stairs. Safe ramp lengths should be one foot for each inch of rise. This means a slope of 1:12. For example, if you have two 7-inch-high steps or a total of 14 inches in rise, you need a 14-foot-long ramp.

Ramps exposed to the outdoors can become extremely slippery and dangerous unless a proper nonslip surface is used. A painted surface is not adequate, as it can be slippery when wet. Surfaces should not be rough enough to make wheelchair travel difficult or unpleasant.

Walkways and Entrances

Walkways around a house are important so you can have a solid constant surface through rough terrain like a yard. They should be a minimum of 42 inches wide so you will not slip off the edge. You should also allow for wheelchair turning, so on corners or switchbacks, a 5-foot width is needed.

Entrances should have a 5×5-foot (minimum) platform in front of doors. This allows you enough clearance to open the door. The platform should extend one foot six inches on the latch side of the door. This means if you want to center the platform on a 3-foot opening, a wider 6-foot platform is needed. If the door opens in, the platform can be 3 feet deep by 5 feet wide.


Have you ever gone through a doorway and mashed your fingers on the edge of a box you were carrying or smashed your fingers on your wheel because you had barely enough room?

The minimum width of doors should be 3 feet (32 inches clear opening). Special attachments on your chair may require even wider doors. Ask your therapists to help you determine your wheelchair width.

Doorways into bathrooms or other confined spaces should swing OUT. Large bathrooms providing ample maneuvering space allow the door to swing in. In-swinging doors are a potential hazard if you fall and block the door. You also may choose to use sliding doors.

Doors the Right Way

Doors can be one of the biggest obstacles in your daily life. You should be aware of several things about doors in order to make your life easier. Is the door too heavy for you to push or pull open? Do you have kick plates at the bottoms of your doors? Can you turn the door handles easily?

The following tips will help you make sure your doors are usable:

(1) Latch handles are easier to grasp than round ones are. Your therapist can recommend various ways to adapt door handles, handles on cabinets, etc.

(2) The best height for door handles is approximately 3 feet.  Your therapist can help you evaluate your reach and determine what heights work best for you.

(3) No matter how careful you try to be, the footrests of your wheelchair will scratch your doors from time to time. Kick plates on both sides of the doors will protect them from this kind of damage.

Other Convenient Heights

Some modifications you may need can get lost among all the more major changes you are planning. Check out these measurements to ensure you don’t miss them:

o  Counters, tables, and sinks: 27–33 inches high

o  Wall-mounted outlets: 18–48 inches high

o  Light switch/thermostat: 36º42 inches from floor

o Wall-mounted telephones: Maximum height of 48 inches

o Closets: Clothes hanger rod, 48 inches maximum shelves, maximum of 54 inches

o Windows: For viewing, a low sill height no higher than 30 inches

You can easily increase heights of tables, beds, etc., by using wooden blocks.


All bathroom fixtures and equipment must be thoroughly evaluated by you and your therapist. The height of toilet seats and placement of grab bars are specific to you and your bathroom.

Safety Considerations

o If you must use a steep ramp, you may want someone to back you down it to prevent you from falling out of your wheelchair.

o Exposed hot-water pipes, drain pipes, motors, and other sources of burns or abrasions should be adequately housed or insulated; preset hot-water heaters to less than 120°.

o Doors to any confined space with only one exit should swing OUT. In-swinging doors pose a potential danger if wheelchair users fall and block the door.

o You may want two separate accessible emergency exits. It is always safer to construct ramps with fire-retardant materials.

o An emergency warning signal should be considered—e.g., a system to alert neighbors, fire department police, etc. It is helpful have accessible telephones near the bed and a phone jack in the bathroom.

o Smoke detectors are always a good idea. If you have difficulty hearing, a system that alerts you with lights (or other means) is a good idea.

o Fuse boxes or circuit breakers should be accessible.

o Provide adequate, even lighting throughout the house.

o Have a fire extinguisher readily available and within reach.


The preceding information is from the popular PVA resource Yes, You Can! A Guide to Self-Care for Persons with Spinal Cord Injury. The book is available at

For more information about home accessibility, contact the PVA Architecture Program, 800-424-8200.

From Around the Web:

Architecture Acton Ostry Accessible Home


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