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Design for the Disabled: A Basic Guide to Adaptations

Projects where the end user is a physically disabled, less mobile, or even elderly, often require features that would not be considered in other types of building.

Why Design for the Disabled?

Projects where the end user is a physically disabled, less mobile, or even elderly, often require features that would not be considered in other types of building.

Each homeowner will need slightly different features specific to their problem or mobility issue so it is important to discuss requirements with the client and get a clear understanding of their expectations.

Housing design in general is moving towards ‘Lifetime Homes’, which are built from the start with some more universal features, meaning less adaptations needed at a later date. The following lists give ideas of some of the features that could be an ideal disability adaptation in the home for your clients.

Principles of Universal Design / Barrier Free Design

For many features, thinking about universal design principles will give a successful solution. The idea is to make the area accessible, usable and safe for as many people as possible:

  • Equitable use (features to suit all abilities and mobilities)
  • Flexibility for users (adaptable, can be used in both hands for example)
  • Simple and Intuitive design (remove complexity and ambiguity)
  • Perceptible Information (easy to understand for all motor skills and sensory ability)
  • Tolerance for User Error (hazard reduction and warnings, even in incorrect use)
  • Low Physical Effort (minimal physical effort, able to stay in natural position)
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use (accommodates all abilities and mobilities)

Entrances and Step Changes in the Home

The entrance to the home will often require an access solution. The most common is a ramp – if this causes a security issue at the front of the house, a portable ramp, or ramp positioned in the garage or around the back of the house, may remove the issue. Blending the ramp into the local design making it look more like a pathway is another solution.

It is important that the ramp does not have a pooling area where water will collect. Make sure good drainage is planned in.

For a small step change, a portable ramp is almost always the best solution for a wheelchair user – though for non-wheelchair users, a grab rail or simple railing may suffice.

If internal stairs are an issue there are 3 basic options:

  • Moving to a single storey property
  • Renovating the ground floor to contain all required features (bedroom, wet room)
  • Installing a lift

The first two options may be out of budget for the client and can be distressing, so often a lift will be installed. Commonly, a through the floor lift is used – but if a more stylish and functional lift is required, a Home Platform Lift may be the solution. Requiring minimal servicing and using highly reliable technology, a home platform lift is versatile for use in access requirements, with a range of sizes for wheelchairs and small footprint helping with space saving in the property.

Floorplan Design for the Disabled

There are some obvious points with floor plan design when thinking of a wheelchair user. Wider doorways – at least 36 inches wide – will allow easier movement between rooms, though different hinges may be a solution if widening doorways means extensive remodelling.

Creating larger rooms will inevitably make turning and moving easier and positioning features and furniture around the room in a way to leave not only a wheelchair width path, but a turning width path where possible. Open plan areas can be a great way to provide plenty of space.

If needed, plan bathrooms into every floor, and make sure they are wet room style, or can fit a range of relevant hoists, supports, grab rails or walk in equipment.

Bathroom Planning for Disabled and Less Mobile

The bathroom is considered the most important area to provide independence and privacy. Install wet rooms if budget allows, or a walk in bath or shower for a cheaper solution.

Remember that when leaving extra space for a wheelchair user to leave space for entrance, transfer and exit again – not just enough room to sit in the middle in a wheelchair. Hoists or supports take up space too, so plan for these if required.

Lowering sinks, seats and other equipment for wheelchair uses allows use whilst seated. Adjustable height features may be required if the residents require a range of heights.

General Room Features for the Disabled

There are lots of features you could consider – speaking with your client will determine their needs.

Counters and cupboards should be lowered, or be possible to lower mechanically if multiple heights are required. Sinks, especially in the kitchen, should also have adjustable or lower height, particularly for wheelchair users.

Flooring should be non-slip, durable, non-buckling and easy to clean. Vinyl flooring and laminates are ideal for wheelchairs, and cork can be good for less mobile clients as falls are dampened.

Use of lever handles and lowered handles will also assist those in a wheelchair, from chairs to cupboards. When lowering functional items, also remember to lower light switches, and raise plug sockets.

Making sure that all elements of a room are accessible is vital. Putting smart controls in convenient places to make a central control point reduces movement required in the room, and think about where windows and radiators are positioned to ensure access is possible once furniture is added.

Disability Elements: Dual Design

For many areas and elements in the design, a dual use item can provide a more subtle adaptation. Handrails can double as towel rails in the bathroom, and hot water tap adapters that mean no kettle is required.

By making a more subtle set of adaptations, the client will feel more comfortable in their home, and not be regularly reminded of their disability.

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