Accessible Home Design: Information & Ideas


Information regarding designing accessible homes from house design to wheelchair access ramps and doorways.

Definition: Defining the Meaning of Accessible Housing

Refers to the construction or modification (such as through renovation or home modification) of housing to enable independent living for persons with disabilities. Accessibility is achieved through architectural design, but also by integrating accessibility features such as modified furniture, shelves and cupboards, or even electronic devices in the home. Adding handrails and grab bars throughout the home, particularly in bathrooms and along stairways, helps reduce the risk of falling. Other adaptations that improve accessibility for seniors include: easy-to-reach work and storage areas in the kitchen; reaching devices to grab objects on high shelves; lever handles on doors; toilet seat risers; walk-in showers; and bathtub and shower seats.

Main Document

Most existing and new housing, even in the wealthiest nations, lack basic accessibility features unless the designated, immediate occupant of a home currently has a disability. However, there are some initiatives to change typical residential practices so that new homes incorporate basic access features such as zero-step entries and door widths adequate for wheelchairs to pass through.

Deciding whether or not a home is accessible depends of course on the nature and extent of a persons disability. An accessible home is a house or apartment that enables an individual to do what he or she needs and desires to do as independently as possible.

For some people, access could be as simple as adding grab bars and a tub seat in the bathroom. However for wheelchair users, access may require ramping entrances, widening doorways, lowering counters, adding lever or loop-style hardware to doors and drawers, and modifying storage areas.

United States

In the United States, the 1988 Amendments to the Fair Housing Act added people with disabilities, as well as familial status, to the classes already protected by law from discrimination (race, color, sex, religion and country of origin). Among the protection for people with disabilities in the 1988 Amendments are seven construction requirements for all multifamily buildings of more than four units first occupied after March 13, 1991.

These seven requirements are as follows:

  • An accessible building entrance on an accessible route.
  • Accessible common and public use areas.
  • Doors usable by a person in a wheelchair.
  • Accessible route into and through the dwelling unit.
  • Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats and other environmental controls in accessible locations.
  • Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars.
  • Usable kitchens and bathrooms.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), which became effective on March 12, 1989, extended the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to cover housing for people with disabilities.

Under the FHAA, it is illegal to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of a dwelling, to refuse to process an offer, or to refuse a legitimate offer on the basis of an applicant's disability. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 establishes an administrative enforcement mechanism, provides stiffer penalties than the present act, and expands its coverage to include disabled persons and families with children.

First published in 1996, the Fair Housing Act Design Manual: A Manual to Assist Designers and Builders in Meeting the Accessibility Requirements of The Fair Housing Act provides clear and helpful guidance about ways to design and construct housing which complies with the Fair Housing Act. The manual explains the accessibility requirements of the Act, which must be incorporated into the design and construction of multifamily housing covered by the Act.

United Kingdom

Great Britain applies the most widespread application of home access to date. In 1999, Parliament passed Section M, an amendment to residential building regulations requiring basic access in all new homes.

This Best Practice Guidance (BPG) has been produced to provide advice on how to implement the London Plan policy on wheelchair accessible housing. London Plan policy states that at least 10% of new homes should be designed to be wheelchair accessible or easily adaptable for residents who are wheelchair users. The London Plan Supplementary Planning Guidance "Accessible London" lists the key features that make a home easily adaptable for wheelchair users.

While achieving accessibility may mean finding a new apartment or designing and building a single family home to the specifications that meet the needs of a person with a specific disability, it is often possible to adapt or modify current and existing housing using various assistive technologies.

Adaptations such as the door sill ramps, environmental control units, and proper lighting mentioned above are also beneficial to individuals with mobility and other physical disabilities, but further accessibility measures are often required for walker and wheelchair users, as well as those whose disabilities affect the use of their hands. One of the most important parts of wheelchair accessible construction in a home or business are bars and handrails. Grab bars and handrails are great accessories to have for those in wheelchairs, especially in the restrooms.

Home inspectors are very knowledgeable and if told before-hand that the home is for someone with disabilities, they can be very helpful in giving recommendations and suggestions or finding problems that may cause inconveniences for the disabled.

Homeowners may be challenged by the need to find renovators familiar with accessible design issues. The federal government of Canada and the provincial governments work jointly to share the cost of offering reimbursement programs for homeowners in need of house renovations for accessibility. These programs improve the ability of homeowners to fund house modifications, through renovating existing houses.

Quick Facts: Accessible Housing

Accessibility in the design of housing and household devices has become more prominent in recent decades due to a rapidly aging population in developed countries. aging seniors may wish to continue living independently, but the aging process naturally increases the disabilities that a senior citizen will experience. A growing trend is the desire for many senior citizens to 'age in place', living as independently as possible for as long as possible. Accessibility modifications that allow aging in place are becoming more common. Housing may even be designed to incorporate accessibility modifications that can be made throughout the life cycle of the residents.

The broad concept of Universal design is relevant to housing, as it is to all aspects of the built environment. Furthermore, a Visit-ability movement begun by grass roots disability advocates in the 1980s focuses specifically on changing construction practices in new housing. This movement, a network of interested people working in their locales, works on educating, passing laws, and spurring voluntary home access initiatives with the intention that basic access become a routine part of new home construction.

Statistics: Housing Accessibility

Housing is one of the most fundamental components of the independent living movement, and accessible housing has been a cornerstone issue for Independent Living Centers across the country since their inception. Although Independent Living Centers have long been involved with providing housing services, there has been little or no systematic and sustained tracking of accessible rental units or documentation of accessible housing statistics.

Latest Home Design Accessibility Publications

High Performance Homes builds custom home in Maryland for man with physical disabilities, design improves accessibility, versatility and cost of living.

Seachrome products offer a range of secure accessibility bathroom fixtures that add long-lasting, versatile style to your remodeling project.

Astoria 7 Hotel in San Sebastian opens doors to accessible tourism with one of the best adapted rooms in the world.

Ruling ensures persons with disability have access to same level of housing as people without disabilities.

Most people buying homes do not even consider whether their home is accessible.

Information regarding available options for converting a house to be accessible by people with disabilities.

Updated accessibility standards for 2013 California Building Code align existing California and federal access regulations from parking spaces and hand rails to housing.

The presence of cell phones and towers and other electrical appliances can make a building inaccessible to electromagnetically sensitive people.

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