Access North Logo New Concepts of Adaptability and Accessability
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New Concepts of Adaptability and Accessibility


Adaptability is a concept whereby sinks, counters, and grab bars are installed so they can be readjusted to different heights for different people. This feature helps everyone - not just those who are short or use wheelchairs. For example, adjustable brackets on kitchen and bathroom counters and sinks as well as continuous 3/4" wood blocking in the walls surrounding a toilet or bathtub allow for adjustability in the fixtures or grab bars at each location. Installing this type of detail into a new house can eliminate the need for costly renovation. What's more, adaptable elements won't change the appearance of a house if they're carefully constructed. A home can easily be re-modified to a "standard" appearance should you decide to sell the house and move at a later date.


During the past decade, building codes based on the American National Standards Institute's, Specifications for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to and Useable by Physically Handicapped People, have made public buildings accessible to our entire population. These building codes, which are generally applicable only to stores, banks, and other public buildings, have generated new ideas for achieving accessibility in private homes. Many of these ideas are described and illustrated below.

Accessible Routes

woman using walker

A continuous corridor that's 3' wide, 6-8' high, and free of hazards and abrupt changes in level should connect all important areas of your home. This pathway should lead from the point where you enter the property, through the entrance to all important rooms. If such an "accessible route" is available, anyone, regardless of physical limitations, will be able to move easily around your home. If you rent your home, check with your landlord before you undertake any modifications.

Accessible Appliances

You should try to strike a balance between safety and useability in your home, especially if very old and frail persons or very young children are present. For example, you may not want a stove with front controls if your grandchildren visit frequently. However, many barrier-free design specialists recommend front controls so persons in wheelchairs won't have to reach across heated burners.


The freedom to move easily around our homes is something most of us take for granted. But it's a freedom that's cherished by those with limited mobility and strength. Many of our homes were designed with strong young families in mind. However, when older persons occupy these houses, they may not be able to open some windows, climb steps, or go through doors, especially if they have limited strength or hand dexterity, or use a wheelchair or other mobility device.

Deciding which doors to make accessible isn't difficult when you consider the main activities you enjoy. In your home, you should have easy access through at least one entry door (preferably two for fire evacuation reasons) and all doors along the accessible route between your bedroom and the kitchen, dining, bathroom, living or family room, and possibly the laundry room. Some doors may not need to be accessible, especially if they lead to seldom-used areas or rooms such as basements, shallow closets, or guest bedrooms.

There are five major reasons why people have difficulty using doors:

  1. Inconsistent Widths: Although the standard doorway width is 32", some doorways may be narrower, and unable to accommodate wheelchairs or other mobility assisting devices.
  2. Landing: The floor space on either side of the door is too small to allow a person who uses a wheelchair or other mobility assisting device to approach and open the door.
  3. Hardware: The latch or lock is located where it's hard to reach and operate, or more commonly, the type of latch, lock, or handle is difficult to operate by someone who has limited hand dexterity.
  4. Weight: The door is too heavy or the automatic door closer or spring pressure is too strong to open easily. Each of these conditions has several solutions.
  5. Width Problems: A standard wheelchair is 24-27" wide. When you add 1 1/2" on both sides of the chair to allow for finger and knuckle clearance, plus an inch or two to allow for inaccurate maneuvering and the usual oblique approach to doors, the clear opening width totals 32". Therefore, this standard is used in most building codes.

A swinging door is commonly available in a 3' width, but 3' inward-opening doors are generally used only as front doors on most homes. It's especially difficult to find doors of this width on bathrooms (builders used to think bathrooms would never have furniture moving through them). The usual reason for providing 3' doors is to allow for easy furniture movement. Short of replacing the entire door and frame with a wider doorway, there are several solutions to the narrow door problem.

Swing Clear Hinges

You can replace the existing hinges on your doors with "swing-clear hinges." They enlarge the clear opening of the door by 1 1/2- 1 3/4 " (the thickness of the door itself). This additional clearance is often enough to provide the necessary minimum width for a wheelchair to pass through the doorway, though it may be a tight squeeze. If the clearance is minimal, you may want to affix a piece of plastic laminate or sheet metal on the door so wheelchairs won't mar the surface as they pass through the doorway.

Remove Door Stops

You can often remove the small wooden door stops which create a stop for swinging doors and re-install them up to 3' above the floor. This will add an additional 3/4" to the clear opening width of the doorway, which may be enough to allow a wheelchair to pass through.

Remove Doors

If you remove existing doors you can provide an additional 1 1/2-2" of clear door opening. If you also remove the door's stops as mentioned above, you'll gain an additional 3/4" and a total of 2 1/4 - 2 3/4" will be added to the clear width of otherwise inaccessible doors.

You may want to simply remove the pins from the hinges and remove the door in some doorways. In other locations, where aesthetics are a consideration, you can remove the hinges, door stops, and other hardware, fill the resulting holes with wood putty or spackle, and repaint or refinish the door frame. Before you remove hinges altogether, make sure you'll never want to reinstall the door in the doorway. Reinstallation may be fairly difficult once your door frames have been modified.


Small landings on either side of doors can create problems if you or others in your home use mobility devices. It is difficult to pull a swinging door open if you, your wheelchair, or another mobility device already occupy the landing area over which the door must swing.

Usually 18-24" is needed beyond the strike jamb on the pull side of the door to allow enough room for a wheelchair user to easily open the door.

Unfortunately, to enlarge a landing you may have to relocate walls or partitions. This may be a difficult task, especially in older homes where walls or partitions bear the weight of the house or where electrical or plumbing lines are located. Two alternatives are available. You can either remove the door from the doorway and eliminate the need to open or close it, or you can install an automatic door opener. Either option will eliminate the need for a wide door landing.


Hardware choices include latches, locks, thresholds, kickplates, vision panels, and door openers. Depending on your needs, all or some of these options may be appropriate in your home.


Latches are a means of keeping doors closed. If a latch isn't necessary (i.e. spring loaded, or well-balanced doors), you may prefer to deactivate it. Anyone can push open a door, or pull it shut if there is no excessive weight involved and the hardware for pulling the door is easy to grasp. When latches are required, you may want to install a device that requires no fine gripping or strong twisting ability. Lever hardware is ideal, but high quality is usually available only in "mortised" latches. If your home isn't newly built, you'll probably be able to replace the existing knob hardware on your mortised lock sets with levers.

Most residential construction uses cylindrical lock sets and latches which are difficult to replace with levers. But several devices have been introduced recently for adding a lever arm to existing cylindrical latch sets.


The security you desire for your home may be difficult to achieve if you have hand dexterity impairments. Most locks require fine dexterity and finger strength. Using the closed fist rule, you can easily determine whether your locks are useable by elder persons in your household who have arthritis. Lever hardware is preferable to any kind of small twist knob. Push buttons may be satisfactory if they don't require fine dexterity to release the lock. A push button lock in a cylindrical lever latch is perfect from an operational point of view, but it doesn't generally provide the security of a dead bolt mechanism.

Slide bolts, however, are fairly easy for anyone to operate and provide nearly the same security as dead bolts.

A lever arm welded or attached to an existing turn knob, may be an acceptable way to adapt your door locks. Magnetic card readers, remote control locks, and combination locks which are push-button activated work well for many people. If you have key locks which retract dead bolts (mortised locksets), you may be able to attach a dowel or other lever arm to the key. This makes it easy for persons with limited finger strength to operate and retract the dead bolt.


Abrupt changes in levels greater than 1/2" can create tripping hazards for people with walking problems and barriers for people who use wheelchairs. Thresholds should be ramped or removed so they do not create any type of barrier.

To remove a threshold, you must either cut or pry up and patch the flooring at wooden thresholds, or replace metal or masonry thresholds with others that have a lower profile. In some cases, you may be able to install a beveled ramp that abuts the edge of the threshold and eliminates the wheeling and tripping barrier.

Alternatively, you can fill the area with mortar or plastic material that will level the approach to the threshold. You should try to eliminate the threshold completely, however, since even a gradual ramp may create problems for some residents or visitors in your home. Analyze the abilities of the members of your household to determine what's best for you and those who live with you.


Doormats, while helping to keep your house clean, can create tripping hazards. Secure doormats to the floor surface or recess them to be flush with the surface so they don't create an edge profile that can cause someone to trip. Since doormats can also slip and slide around on the floor, you should fasten them in place with tacks, staples, or double- sided carpet tape.


Where a doorway is especially narrow or someone habitually pushes the door open with wheelchair foot rests, excessive wear can occur. Oversized kickplates can reduce this wear. Kickplates should extend from the floor surface up to a height of at least 10" and preferably 16". You can fasten plastic laminate, metal, and even hardwood kickplates to the door to provide protection. Kickplates should be as thin as possible so they won't reduce the clear door width opening.

Vision panels

If you have interior passage doors that you normally leave closed, you may want to install vision panels in them so that slow-moving persons won't be knocked over by others coming through the door.

For security reasons, you may want to provide oneway vision panels and/or peepholes on entrance doors. This will allow you to visually survey any visitor before you open the doorway and expose yourself to risk. For people in wheelchairs, peepholes should be located approximately 36-45" above the floor.

Automatic operators

sand bucket

If one or more of your doors are difficult to open because they are excessively heavy or the landings are small, you may want to install automatic door openers. A simple system of pulleys and weights as shown in the illustration may be a satisfactory solution for doors where access is a problem.

Electro-mechanical openers that plug into an electrical outlet and are operated from a remote button or sensor are effective for many installations.

Pneumatic systems like those at supermarkets require compressors and piping, and are generally much more expensive than the electromechanical systems mentioned above. Automatic operators are available for sliding or swinging doors.

Door Types

If you plan to modify or replace doors for better accessibility, remember that several types of doors may be suitable. Swinging doors are the most common, but they require landings on both sides.

Sliding doors are often useful when space is limited, but their weight and lateral movement can cause problems for some disabled people. And some sliding doors require a floor track that can create a tripping or wheeling problem for some individuals. Threshold modification may be necessary. Folding doors are another option. They require lateral force, but are generally lighter in weight than most other doors. However, the hardware for these types of doors will sometimes not withstand constant use.

Pocket doors are becoming more and more fashionable. Where there is only an occasional need for privacy they're especially effective. When they aren't being used, they're out of the way and out of sight (hidden in a wall).

Pocket doors can also be inexpensively mounted on the surface of an existing wall, but are less aesthetically pleasing than hidden doors.


Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Retired Persons.