Safe, Easy Organizing for the Disabled and Elderly

Jon Fesmire |

Kitchens are designed with an average height, able-bodied person in mind. In most cases, that works great. The cook can arrange the kitchen how he or she likes it, with plates, cups, pots, and so on wherever they find it the most convenient.

However, not everyone fits into or can adapt to the average kitchen. They can be uncomfortable for particularly short or tall people, but for people with limited mobility, including those who need wheelchairs, a specialty kitchen is necessary. Let’s assume you’re starting from scratch on the kitchen. Most kitchens have a somewhat narrow walk space of about 32”, which is fine for people on their feet. This includes the elderly who walk, albeit slowly. For wheelchair access, however, the kitchen should have 42” doors, and floor spaces should be at least 40” wide, 60” wide around turns. Counters, of course, need to be lower for a person in a wheelchair, at a height of 34”. If you install adjustable counters, make sure the range of height is between 28” and 34”. The sink, working countertops, and the stove need knee clearance. That means you’d be able to roll your wheelchair partly under them to wash dishes, prepare food, or cook. In such a setup, the kitchen pipes would be properly enclosed to not infringe on the leg space. Also, opt for a shallow sink that you don’t have to bend over to reach into. This makes cleaning food and doing dishes much easier. Want to make some coffee, tea, or instant soup, but find boiling water dangerous? Install a separate side-faucet in your sink that dispenses water just hot enough for those things. Electrical outlets, often above counters, should be lower, though not too low. Outlets below 15” from the floor can be difficult to reach. Light switches and the like should be about 48” or a bit lower off the floor. Also, make sure there is a light switch at every entry. That way, if you have to enter the kitchen at night, you can easily switch on a light as you enter the kitchen. Cabinets need to be lower, or adjustable, so that someone in a wheelchair can easily access what they need. You may also want a shallow pantry with drawers, making it easier to reach everything. Bumping into counters can hurt, especially when you hit hard edges. Rounded edges give a room a modern, yet safe feel, and can lower the risk of painful bumps and bruises. Lower shelves are great, but can be improved. Another idea is installing pull-down shelves, which swivel out and down so the user can get what they need. A similar idea is the pull-out pantry, which can work great if your pantry is a foot or so deep. Instead of swinging out the door, you stand or sit to the side and pull it, and out comes shelves of your canned food, spices, and whatever else you store there, accessible from two sides. Ideally, have the sink and stove on one side of the kitchen, with a work space in between. This prevents the need to, say, turn 180 degrees to get a pot of water from sink to stove, or the other way around, and can prevent spills and burns. Instead, you can move the pot across a counter from one spot to the other. The heaviest items should neither be too low nor too high. If too low, they'll be especially tough to pick up. If too high, they can easily fall on you. Crock pots and the like can be kept on the counter, or in a cabinet around counter level. Likewise, the microwave should be at counter height or even slightly below. The last thing anyone wants is to reach high to take out hot food. You should be able to retrieve it at an easy height and set it on the counter. Rather than having a counter with doors and shelves, consider drawers. It’s easier to slide open a drawer than reach deep into a cabinet, especially a low one. Simply pull the drawer out, as with the pantry, grab your pot, and get cooking. For those not in a wheelchair, slip-resistant surfaces are essential, and should have some grout to grip your toes and feet. Vinyl and cork flooring are both good. Roll under cooktops, electric ranges that, in a wheelchair, you can roll under and cook while sitting. These are just some of the possibilities for making your kitchen a perfect working environment if you have limited mobility. Barrier Free Living has a plethora of ideas compatible with the Americans with Disabilities Act. While a standard kitchen can be intimidating for a person with limited mobility, whether that person has a disability or is in his or her golden years, a functional, accessible kitchen is within reach. You deserve a kitchen that works for you.