To be honest, the topic of decorating and designing a home for wheelchair accessibility isn’t one that I thought I’d ever be talking about or having to think about. At least not for my home. Not now. Maybe when I’m 80 years old or older, but certainly not now in my 40’s.
And yet, here I am. Wheelchair accessibility is the first thing on my mind each and every time I make a decision regarding my house — where to put walls, where to take walls down, where to put doors, how wide to make doors, how to decorate a room, where to put the furniture, etc. It’s always there in my mind, and it always has to be a consideration. And to be honest, I’m still learning, with Matt’s help and input.
When Matt and I got married, he was perfectly healthy. He wasn’t diagnosed with M.S. until two years later, but even then, his symptoms (mostly occasional dizziness and some balance issues) weren’t severe. It wasn’t until about five years after his diagnosis that he got to the point of requiring a wheelchair for mobility.
That was life-altering, and it didn’t help that we were in a tiny condo at the time. Talk about challenging!
This house has been so good for Matt. He’s able to move around so much more, and much more easily. Not only do we have the space (this house is almost four times bigger than the condo), but I’ve been doing my best to add more and more accessibility as I make changes to each room. The two main areas of consideration are (1) doorway width and (2) any flooring transitions that make wheelchair navigation from one area to another difficult (or impossible).
The standard doorway width for accessibility is 36 inches, but Matt maneuvers through 32-inch doorways perfectly fine. We were fortunate because so many old homes in our area only have 24-inch or 28-inch-wide bathroom doors. Our master bathroom already had a 36-inch door on it, and I widened the hallway bathroom door to 32 inches during the remodel. All of our bedroom doors are 32 inches wide, which is fine with Matt, but I do plan to switch out all of the standard hinges with offset/expandable door hinges.
These add about two additional inches of clearance to doorways. So on a door like our master bedroom, where the door can only open a maximum of 90-degrees, the doorway would have an actual 32 inches of clearance rather than the current 30 inches with the door taking up valuable clearance space. Right now, Matt is able to get through the 32-inch doorways with standard hinges, but he leaves scuff marks and gouges on all of the doors. 😀 That’s not a big deal right now, since we still have all of the old bedroom doors. But as soon as I replace those with new doors, I’d like for him to have room to maneuver through them without scuffing the doors with his metal foot pedals each time.
Flooring transitions are another really big consideration. Remember way back when I was just starting my kitchen remodel, and I popped up all of those asbestos tiles and found wood underneath?
It wasn’t salvageable (i.e., not able to be sanded and refinished), so I considered my options. The easiest option would have been to just put very thin Hardibacker down over the top, and then tile over it. But that would have created a transition at the kitchen doorway with a height difference in the floor. Transitions like that are generally perfectly fine for ambulatory people. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t even notice it. But for Matt, any height difference in flooring makes maneuverability impossible. So I ended up removing all of this wood, down to the subfloor, and using the same red oak hardwood floor that’s in the rest of the house so that there would be no transition or height difference from the music room to the kitchen.
That alone was one of the main reasons I decided to go ahead and do the full remodel on the hallway bathroom earlier this year, rather than just doing a quick and cheap makeover. The 1/2-inch lip on the bathroom tile at the entrance to the bathroom made that hallway bathroom completely inaccessible to Matt.
And I don’t mean that it just made it challenging. I mean that it was literally impossible. I even tried it myself. One evening after Matt had gone to bed, I got in his wheelchair and tried to get over that 1/2-inch tile lip and into the bathroom. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it. Those front small wheels on the wheelchair just couldn’t clear that lip.
So I took all of that tile and the thick mortar bed out, down to the subfloor, and then very carefully figured exactly how thick the subfloor, Hardibacker, and tile each needed to be in order to be perfectly flush with the hardwood floor in the hallway.
The wood transition strip and hardwood flooring just outside the bathroom door still need work (which I’ll tackle when I work on the hallway), but it’s all the same height now. After living in this house for 21 months without being able to enter the hallway bathroom, Matt finally has easy access to this bathroom.
Other than doorway widths and flooring transitions, the main consideration is simply keeping main traffic areas through the house wide enough for wheelchair accessibility.
There are so many considerations when designing for accessibility…
If I didn’t need to keep accessibility in mind, I probably would have expanded the hallway bathroom into the hallway some. Our hallway is huge, and generally I would consider it to be wasted space. But for Matt, it’s great! He can easily maneuver from the bedroom to his game room, or from his game room to the bathroom. He loves that wide open space, and when I suggested expanding the bathroom and making the hallway smaller, he hated that idea.
The room that I’m using as a music room was actually intended by the builders to be the dining room. It’s a great location for a dining room, just outside the kitchen, but it’s also a main traffic area to get to the kitchen and breakfast room, and into the sunroom (which will eventually be a family room). Can you imagine how difficult it would be for Matt if I plopped a big ole dining table surrounded by chairs right in the middle of that room? Obviously that wouldn’t work for him, so I needed a purpose for that room that could leave the middle wide open. Sure, it’s basically a glorified hallway with a piano and a couple of chairs in it, but at least it can serve a purpose while also remaining accessible for Matt.
The pantry that I’ll eventually build at the back of the breakfast room will be a huge 12 feet by 8 feet. That seems way too big for a pantry until you factor in accessibility and space for wheelchair maneuverability.
Many people have suggested adding another pony wall and column to separate the entryway from the dining room. That’s not something I would consider doing simply because it would hinder Matt’s maneuverability around the front door. Imagine being in a wheelchair and trying to answer the front door with a wall just to the left of the front door. That just won’t work for him.
Area rugs are another huge consideration. I can’t use rugs in most areas where a rug would naturally go — at the front door or in the entryway, in the bathroom, in the kitchen. I will still use them in areas like a family room, bedroom, and dining room, but I have to be very careful in selecting them. I can’t have anything with a high, thick pile. Flat woven rugs and natural rugs like jute and seagrass are really my only options. (Which, by the way, is perfectly fine for me since those are really the only kinds of rugs I like anyway. 🙂 )
When we eventually turn our current master bedroom into a master bathroom and add on to the back of the house, we’ll need a fully accessible, curb-free shower.
There are so many considerations when you live with someone with special accessibility needs. Like I said, I’m still learning. And really, so is Matt. We’re on this journey together, and as much as he wants me to have everything I’ve ever wanted in this house, I also want it to be fully functional and accessible for him. Beautiful and accessible — that’s the end goal, with lots of learning and trial and error along the way. 🙂