Accessible housing refers to the construction or modification (such as through renovation or home modification) of housing to enable independent living for persons with disabilities.
Accessibility is achieved through architectural design, but also by integrating accessibility features such as modified furniture, shelves and cupboards, or even electronic devices in the home.
Some available features include:
- Accessible bathtubs, like the SafeStep walk-in tub
- Grab bars
- Accessible publishing, like Braille and audiobooks (there’s a great deal of info at Humanware)
- All kinds of assistive technology
In the United States, the 1988 Amendments to the Fair Housing Act added people with disabilities, as well as familial status, to the classes already protected by law from discrimination (race, color, gender, religion, creed, and country of origin).
Among the protections for people with disabilities in the 1988 Amendments are seven construction requirements for all multifamily buildings of more than four units first occupied after March 13, 1991. These seven requirements are as follows:
- An accessible building entrance on an accessible route,
- Accessible common and public use areas,
- Doors usable by a person in a wheelchair,
- Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit,
- Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations,
- Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars, and
- Usable kitchens and bathrooms.
“Access” is typically defined within the limits of what a person sitting in a wheelchair is able to reach with arm movement only, with minimal shifting of the legs and torso.
Lighting and thermostat controls should not be above and power outlets should not be below the reach of a person in a wheelchair.
Sinks and cooking areas typically need to be designed without cupboards below them, to permit the legs of the wheelchair user to roll underneath, and countertops may be of reduced height to accommodate a sitting rather than standing user. In some cases two food preparation areas may be combined into a single kitchen to permit both standing and wheelchair users.
In spite of these advancements, the housing types where most people in the United States reside – single-family homes – are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, or any other federal law with the exception of the small percentage of publicly funded homes impacted by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. As a result, the great majority of new single-family homes replicate the barriers in existing homes.
Renovations for accessibility
Homeowners may be challenged by the need to find renovators familiar with accessible design issues.
I would love to help you get in touch with someone in your area who does disability renovations￼—if you require accessibility updates to your home, send me an email & we can get the ball rolling.
Adaptations and accommodations
Many ranch style homes and manufactured homes utilize a main floor slightly raised above ground level, but have an overall flat layout with either a crawlspace or slightly raised basement below for plumbing, electrical, and heating systems.
These homes can be relatively easily modified to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, with the installation of a long low-rise ramp outside the building, up to the house entrance, placed over the existing stairway. This type of ramp can then be removed at a later time, reverting to the stairway entrance if the handicapped access is no longer necessary.
Split level homes tend to be designed with multiple internal stairways and half-floor landings inside the building. There may be an entrance area inside the building at ground level, with stairs inside the entrance that immediately go up and down from the ground level.
These homes are more difficult to accommodate inexpensively since there is often no space available inside the structure to install long sloping wheelchair ramps to access the various floors. It may be possible to retrofit stair lifts into the stairwells or wheelchair lifts into balconies near the stairwell.
Multi-story homes can sometimes be accommodated by installing a private residential elevator, which is usually much less expensive and has fewer design and layout requirements than a full commercial elevator. Homebuilders can, in some cases, plan for a future residential elevator by designing closet spaces on each floor stacked vertically with the same dimensions and location.
At a later time the closet floors and ceilings are removed and the elevator equipment is installed into the open shaft.
Aging in place and accessibility
A growing trend among senior citizens is to “age in place”, reflecting a desire to retain independence for as long as possible.
Adaptations for seniors take into account the most common physical impairments affecting the elderly. For example, a common cause of serious injury for seniors is falling inside the home.
Adding handrails and grab bars throughout the home, particularly in bathrooms and along stairways, helps reduce the risk of falling.
Other adaptations that improve accessibility for seniors include: easy-to-reach work and storage areas in the kitchen; reaching devices to grab objects on high shelves; lever handles on doors; accessible toilets; toilet seat risers; walk-in showers; and bathtub and shower seats.