Independent Living Institute


Housing adaptation

Toward a barrier-free home

An environment that is barrier free is a vital aspect to independence; it can substantially increase the options for establishing your own routine of daily living and working activity. There are many ways to change a seemingly inaccessible environment into a barrier-free living situation. The changes that you decide to make will depend on the following:

While a dream house with all the features of accessibility may not at present be affordable, there are a number of changes that can be made for reasonable costs. A professional carpenter can make structural modifications that you need. However, a large number of modifications can be made by persons who are skillful with their hands. Whether you use a professional or a weekend carpenter, it is important that you make sure that the person knows exactly what modifications are to be done before beginning the work.

Another preliminary task involves checking to see if adding a room, moving a wall, or making other structural changes at your location requires a building permit.

If you are renting or leasing, you are required to get written permission from your landlord to make structural changes. Your landlord may be willing to share or pay for the cost of modifications.

Features of accessibility


A width of 30 inches is required for manual and power wheelchairs. In the United States doors come in standard widths of 28, 30, 32, 34, and 36 inches. Doors with odd widths or larger than 36 inches are considered custom doors and have to be specially ordered. A 28-inch door can be made accessible by installing wrap-around hinges since they allow the door to open past the frame. These hinges are available at hardware supply stores.

Door handles with lever action can be installed in place of doorknobs.
Sliding doors save space but are considerably more expensive than standard doors.
Folding doors save swing space but take up valuable space in the doorway when folded.


Relocating light switches and plug sockets will run approximately $30-45 each. Improperly installed electrical wiring can be dangerous, so a qualified electrician should be used to install or reroute the electrical wiring. The electrician should be given the exact locations for switches, plugs, and appliances.


Ramps should be 36 to 38 inches wide with a slope of no more than 15 degrees or one foot of length for every inch in height. Wooden ramps exposed to weather should be constructed with treated lumber and marine-grade plywood. Rails at a height of 30 to 32 inches are recommended. A non-skid texturizer should be added to exterior paint on the ramp surface. The supports or legs for the ramp should be cemented 12 to 18 inches into the ground if the ramp exceeds a length of 10 feet. A deck or porch of 4-1/2 x 4-1/2 feet is recommended for exterior entry ways to allow for a 360-degree turning radius for a wheelchair. Similar platforms are needed at the end of a ramp and for ramps that change directions. The same dimensions apply for concrete ramps as for wooden ramps. Reinforcement steel rods are recommended for ramps that are longer than 8 feet.


Roll-in showers generally require 16 to 20 square feet (4x4 feet or 4x5 feet) floor space. A sloped entrance and proper drainage are critical to prevent seepage into the floor or foundation. The installation and relocation of shower controls and drain can be done by a plumber. Lever action controls fro faucets are available at hardware stores. Also, curtains are easier to operate than doors on showers. Vanity cabinets can be removed from underneath the sink to allow for more mobility inside the bathroom.

Hot water pipes should be insulated to prevent burns or other injuries.
Lever action faucets for the sink are available.
Mirrors should be installed so that they can be used both by people standing and by people seated in wheelchairs. Adjustable mirrors may also be installed.
The seat of the commode needs to be 17 to 19 inches from the floor. There are brackets available to raise the seat or a plumber can raise the entire commode to the desired height.
Grab-bars for steadying can be installed on sturdy walls next to the toilet and in the shower approximately 33 to 36 inches from the floor and of sufficient length to meet your needs.


Closet doors which are 32 inches wide with a maximum threshold height of 1/2 inch are recommended.

Clothing rods may be lowered and adjustable shelves may be installed to make the contents of closets more accessible.

The room should have a 5-foot diameter turning space.

Location of temperature control switches is important. Switches for air conditioning units, fans, heaters, and thermostats all need to be 33 to 36 inches from the floor. Windows that open with ease by using a lever or a weighted pulley system located at a comfortable height for the user can be installed and modifications can be made to accommodate the user.


A width of 5 feet is required between counters for turning space.
Stoves that are level with the counter make the transfer of pots and pans easier. It is safer to have temperature controls on the front of the stove and staggered burner plates. Ovens that open to the side can be approached more closely for the removal of hot items. Also, ovens that are placed either below or above the counter should have controls and racks within reach.
An open area underneath the sink can be made by removing the cabinet. The area at minimum should be a height of 27 inches, a width of 30 inches, and depth of 19 inches.
Switches for lights and garbage disposal can be placed on the front of the counter or cabinets.
Cabinet doors can be replaced with curtains. Cabinets and shelves need a toe space of 9 inches high and 4 to 5 inches deep. Carousel shelves and shelves on smooth rollers can be useful for reaching objects stored on the back part of the shelf. Small carousel shelves are also handy to use inside the refrigerator for storing small items.


Specific information about telephones such as speaker phones, pushbutton dials, self-dialing phones for frequently used numbers, and volume-control receivers is available from your telephone company. Teletypewriters (TTYs, TDDs) are available for people who are hearing impaired.
Citizen-band radios are useful back-up systems for communication in cases when the power goes off.
Flashing lights can be installed to indicate to a hearing impaired person that someone is at the door or that the phone is ringing.


Hard surfaces are best for wheelchairs since surfaces such as loose gravel and shag carpets, to say nothing of loose earth, make travel difficult. For people who are visually impaired, rope trails with spaces for cross traffic can be helpful in bad weather or when crossing large open spaces, such as fields. Different textures of soil, grass, gravel, and corner-marking stones can also be used to mark paths without rails for people who are visually impaired.

Steep grades and uneven ground can be leveled in frequently traveled areas. Proper drainage is necessary to prevent mud and erosion. Conversions and modifications can be made on trucks, tractors, and other farm machinery to allow for greater use of the vehicles. For more information on adapting farm machinery, contact Bill Field, Breaking New Ground Project, Purdue University, Lafayette, IN 47907. Other types of travel machines can be modified too, including snowmobiles, 3-wheel motor bikes, bicycles, etc.

In conclusion

When considering ways to make your home more accessible, the best of all tools and designs is a well coordinated amount of common sense and a generous use of your creativity.

For more information about modifications, contact:

Accessibility Guidelines for Multi-family Housing, Regional Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program
P.O. Box 1358
Hot Springs, AR 71901
Breaking New Ground Project
Purdue University
Lafayette, IN 47907, United States

National Clearinghouse for Rehabilitation Training Materials
115 Old USDA Building
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74074, United States

Barrier-Free Environments, Inc.
P.O. Box 30634
Raleigh, NC 276722, United States

ILRU at Texas Institute for Rehabilitation
2323 S. Shepherd, Suite 1000
Houston, TX 77019
United States
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