Our Wheelchair Accessible Home


By Jean Riva 

For most of our adult lives my husband and I had wanted to build a house. It took his stroke for us to finally take the plunge. We really had no choice. The two houses that we owned were not good candidates to retrofit for Don's newly acquired needs and there were virtually no wheelchair accessible houses on the market.


Finding a builder who was knowledgeable about Universal Design in a town of 600,000 should have been easy, after all, the concept has been around since the 1980s. But it wasn't easy. The Home Builder's Association only listed one builder who built for that market niche and although his houses were beautiful customized homes, his starting price was twice what we had wanted to spend. But he was passionate about building for the disabled and, even though he knew we couldn't afford his services, he was generous with his time and gave us the confidence we needed to go forward with our project.


All total, we called twelve well-known builders. Some had never heard of the term Universal Design. We were shocked! Other builders never returned our calls which, we believe, was a form of prejudge against the disabled. The building company we finally went with had built three wheelchair accessible houses, so they said, but we quickly found out that we had to bring our own research into the design stage of the process. They were willing and able, but WE were the experts when it came to Don's needs.


Universal Design is not rocket science, but there is a wide variety of choices to be made and just as every disability is different, every house for the disabled will be different based on the options taken and the budget you have to work within. The core, must-have features of Universal Design homes are:


    at least one no-step entry way

    one floor living

    36" exterior and interior doorways

    thresholds on the doorways that are flush with the floor

    a five foot open radius in the centers of the bathroom and kitchen

    a roll-in shower stall or transfer tub that fits the special needs of your disability

    a roll under sink in the bath

    reinforced bathroom walls around the toilet with grab bars

    four foot wide hallways


Other features of Universal Design that we included thorough out our home were: lever-style door handles and lower windowsills than the norm, so that Don gets a better view from a seated position. Carpeted rooms have a very short looped carpet with a dense, commercial grade paddling underneath that is glued on both sides. (The wrong choice of carpeting and paddling can make it difficult for wheelchair and walker users.) In the kitchen, a side-by-side refrigerate is a must for people in wheelchairs.


We also included two microwaves---one low for Don, one high for me, and the cupboard below our kitchen sink opens up fully from countertop to floor so that Don can get his wheelchair up under the sink. A section of our countertop is also lower and open underneath so that Don has a workstation in the kitchen. There are lots of Universal Design options to use in a kitchen including hydrolytic cabinets that go up and down and oven doors that open side to side. But this is an area that will quickly drive up the cost of the home. The few options that we did use fit our life style perfectly with a minimal impact on our budget.


Our garage takes advantage of several common Universal Design features. The overhead doors are eight foot high, instead of the standard seven so that a pop-up van will fit. The garage is also large enough to unload a wheelchair from the side or the back of a van. We also have a parking space for an electric wheel chair with an outlet and a grab bar for transfers.


Another feature that is a favorite of Don's is that the entire garage floor is a gently slope, which eliminates the need for a wooden ramp. To push himself around in his manual chair, Don only has the use of one arm and one leg; with a conventional ramp, he would not have been able to roam freely from the house to the garage without my help. Our front sidewalk uses the same gentle slope principle, so there is no visible ramp advertising that a disabled person lives within.


Anyone who is thinking of building a Universal Design house will find a lot of information on the Internet. A few books and magazines of plans are also available. Your local rehab hospital may also put out pamphlet; ours did, as did the local Home Builder's Association. Most helpful was our local Advocates for the Disabled; they had a specialist in Universal Design, disabilities and local codes who reviewed our plans free of charge and made suggestions. He also gave us a scale model wheelchair to run around the blueprint to look for ways to fine tune things like the swing of the doors, furniture placement, turn spaces for the wheelchair, etc. This was a VERY useful little tool.


We also had my husband's occupational therapist go over the master bath plans, so that we got it just right for his needs. (We set up the master bath for a right-side disability and our spare bath for a left-side disability for resale purposes; but we've been told that most Universal Design houses sell by word of mouth, before they hit the open market, so resale value is not really an issue with these houses.) If you are thinking of building Universal Design, my advice would be to start your research early and take you time doing it. Don't sign off on your blueprint until you are satisfied with your choice of options and the price. The Universal Design features that we included added just under $4,000 to the cost of building a conventional house and it was tax deductible.


Even now that our house is almost a year old, we still can't believe this beautiful, well-thought out and functionally perfect house is really ours. Our only regret is that it took a stroke to get it built.


Copyright July 2004

The Stroke Network, Inc.

P.O. Box 492 Abingdon, Maryland 21009

All rights reserved.