For any of us, a flight of stairs or a high shelf may someday seem like an insurmountable hurdle. Almost all of us, at some point in our lives will face a temporary or permanent loss resulting in reduced muscle strength, impaired vision, or reliance on a wheelchair. In some cases, people are forced to leave a home in which they have invested years of hard work and memories.
Another reality is an aging population with a desire to remain active and independent. Statistics show that by 2031, the number of Canadians over the age of 75 will have increased from 1.3 million today to over 4.4 million. Aging baby boomers who have enjoyed active lifestyles and travelling may well be reluctant to give up their independence to enter a care facility. Having a home that can age with them and accommodate a physical impairment would a great benefit.
Fortunately, building a home that will be barrier-free for a lifetime need not be a radical departure from standard home designs. If you are planning to build a new home or renovate your existing home, the following are some ideas and subtle modifications that can ensure freedom of mobility for yourself and your family.
- Select door and drawer handles that open with little resistance and can be operated with a closed fist. Lever handles are best for faucets and doors. Loop handles are best for drawers.
- Doorways should be a minimum of 82cm (32 inches) wide and all entries should have a flat threshold. Allow a minimum width of 92cm (36 inches) for walkways.
- Avoid sunken rooms. If you are renovating a home that has one room lower than an adjoining room, install a gentle slope to join the rooms rather than a step.
- A side-by-side refrigerator is recommended as it reduces the need to back up when opening the refrigerator.
- Sliding cabinet doors work best for people in a wheelchair.
- Consider adjusting work surfaces to a 76cm (30-inch) height rather than the standard 92cm (36-inch) height. This will aid a person who is seated or a child who may want to help out in the kitchen. It is also good for those who suffer from back problems or have limited reach.
- Countertops with rounded edges can reduce injury if someone should happen to fall or bump into them.
- Open floor space should be 1.525 metres by 1.525 metres (5 feet by 5 feet) to allow a wheelchair to easily turn 360 degrees.
- Choose lever door handles instead of knobs that must be pulled or turned.
- Leave knee space beneath counters.
- Choose stoves with control knobs in front for easy access.
- Mirrors should be long enough that standing persons can see themselves as well as someone in a wheelchair.
- Choose a washbasin that is fairly low, approximately 76cm (30 inches), and one that has knee room beneath the basin.
- Long lever handles are best for faucets.
- Today there is a wide selection of bathtubs, particularly soaker and Jacuzzi tubs that have built-in grips to prevent a fall.
- Select shower stalls with a low threshold. The design trend is toward solid plastic shower stalls and many of those are available with low thresholds.
- Showers should ideally also include a shower seat, grab bars at back and sides, a hand-held showerhead and non-slip flooring.
- Motion sensors and timers, which turn lights on and off, are especially useful for those with difficulties reaching. Motion sensor lights can also be a valuable safety feature in any home.
- Position dimmers, switches, and thermostats at approximately 110cm (44 inches) above the floor. Small children can also benefit from this design modification.
Enjoyment of the outdoors doesn't disappear with impaired mobility. If there is a difference in height between your home and backyard, consider a gently sloping walkway at least 92 cm (36 inches) wide. It can be a decorative part of your garden and even a key design feature. You may need to use from a wheelchair or walker in which case, it is simply a meandering path, an ornamental entrance to your garden.
Fortunately, the awareness of accessibility issues means there have been many advances in home design. There are also more "barrier-free" products available today than ever before. By incorporating some of these into your home design you can safeguard the enjoyment of your home and freedom for years to come.