Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Retired Persons.
There are so many labor-saving kitchen devices on the market today that even a severely limited person can be a great cook. Many of the techniques you can use to make food preparation easier are described below.
The flow of activity in efficient kitchens follows a triangle. The path starts at the food preparation area, which is generally around the sink where foods from the refrigerator or storage are cleaned and washed.
The next stage is the mixing area, where foods are mixed and processed. The third stage is stove, range, microwave, etc. where the food is cooked. You should try to arrange these stages in a linear or triangular pattern to conserve your energy and to function efficiently.
Refrigerators and Freezers
Side-by-side refrigerator/ freezers allow access to each area, at least in part, by everyone, regardless of their bending or reaching capabilities. A person who uses a wheelchair can reach the lower portion of this appliance. A person who has difficulty bending over can use the upper areas.
However, some people dislike side-by-side refrigerators because their freezer sections are narrow. A top freezer (the most common model available) is easily used by a person who has bending difficulties. A bottom freezer is much more easily used by a short person or someone who uses a wheelchair. Self-defrosting refrigerator- freezers, ice cube makers, and cold water spigots are especially helpful to persons with limited strength and dexterity.
Counters and Work Surfaces
If you're kneading bread, you probably require a counter surface at wrist height. If you're chopping vegetables, you probably prefer a higher counter height. Tall people prefer higher counters; short people and people in wheelchairs prefer lower counters. Adjustable countertops can satisfy each of these preferences. The only counter area which cannot be raised or lowered easily is the area directly above the dishwasher. Instead of a work area, you can use this counter as a transition area for food coming to and from the refrigerator or sink. Stand-alone kitchen tables are useful if you need or prefer to sit when preparing food. You can also attach a lapboard to your wheelchair or place it on your knees.
Corner counters can be used effectively for stoves and sinks, providing the leg space you'll need if you're seated or use a wheelchair. This arrangement eliminates the problem of storage in an inaccessible corner. Remember to allow at least 18" of counter space next to any major appliances to hold containers or food that is going to be used or put away. You can also create different counter heights by installing folding or pull-out surfaces, like cutting boards, at convenient heights, or by placing a wooden board on top of a convenient drawer.
A stool will allow you to sit at the counter without back strain. Tall stools or adjustable height chairs are also useful. They can be mounted with casters to make getting around easier. If you're unable to stand for long periods, a sling belt can be outfitted on the counter to help you when you feel fatigued.
Persons in wheelchairs have great difficulty using standard counters because of the cabinets below. You can remove the base cabinets or just the cabinet doors to resolve this problem. If you have limited hand dexterity, or can use only one hand, there are many ingenious devices that can help you prepare food. Spiked cutting boards, mixing bowl holders and nonskid surfaces, are just a few of the devices that have been developed.
If your sink is too deep and causes you back strain when you lean over to reach things at the bottom, install a wooden, wire, or plastic rack. This will raise the working level to a height that's more comfortable for you.
You'll also need an open area below the sink if you use a wheelchair. Garbage disposals, which can obstruct this area, should be located as far back as possible to provide the maximum amount of clearance. You may want to install a separate sink alongside your standard sink and attach the garbage disposal unit to it so you'll have adequate leg space underneath the primary sink. If the supply temperature to the hot water exceeds 115-degrees Fahrenheit, insulate the hot water supply and the waste lines.
Ranges with staggered burners allow persons who use wheelchairs to reach the back burners without burning themselves. A mirror above the stove (similar to those used on cooking shows) allows a person in a wheelchair to visually supervise the progress of cooking food.
Your range controls should be located at the front or side of the cooktop so you can operate them without having to reach over hot burners. If there's leg room underneath the cooktop, insulate it so you won't accidentally burn yourself on the undersurface. Flush ceramic cook top units (which have a flat surface) allow persons who have little upper torso strength to easily slide pots and pans full of food and water from one area to another. If your sink is located near the cooktop and has a handheld hose / sprayer, you may be able to fill a pot or pan from the sink without having to move the container off the stove.
Oven location is important. A standard stove with oven below the cooktop can create problems for people in wheelchairs because they have to bend over and reach a long distance to open the oven and pull out its contents. Wall-mounted ovens with side opening doors are ideal for persons whose mobility is limited. However, convection and microwave ovens are the only appliances currently manufactured with side opening doors. A toaster oven is often more accessible and convenient for cooking or heating small items.
Controls and Dexterity
As mentioned earlier, people with hand dexterity limitations are often unable to operate equipment controls. A rubber cane tip with a dowel through it, installed over an existing appliance control knob can help.
Any markings designating temperatures, settings, etc. should contrast with their background, so that persons with poor eyesight can easily see the level at which the appliance is set. Controls should also have audible or tactile markings for cooks with limited eyesight. Warning lights or pilot lights should be visible so users will know when the appliance is on or off. A wooden safety hook can help insure that a person doesn't burn himself when using an oven.
Controls for under-cabinet lights, exhaust fans and wall-mounted electrical outlets should be located on the front edge of the counter. This allows a seated person to easily operate these devices without having to stretch a long distance. The controls of wallmounted ovens should be located no higher than 40" above the floor so that persons in wheelchairs can reach them easily.
Where storage and the reach of the cook are limited, you should analyze the goods and equipment that you want to store. You may find out-of-the-way areas that are perfect for long-term or "deep" storage items, such as the punch bowl that's used once a year, or the 50-pound bag of lima beans. Other items such as tableware, spices and condiments, and everyday dishes should be conveniently located. If you identify things you need only occasionally, you'll be able to anticipate when you need someone to help you reach out-of-then way storage.
If you are short or in a wheelchair, kitchen storage can be a problem. Base cabinets are the best storage areas, but when the space under a counter must be clear so a wheelchair can approach the area, the storage is lost. One alternative is rolling storage carts that can be moved out of the way when access to the work surface is necessary. These carts can also help you work at one position with utensils and equipment on either side, and safely transport dishes and food from the kitchen to the serving area. In corner cabinets, lazy susans eliminate the need for a long reach back into an inaccessible area. Many innovative ideas are available to help you maximize your storage space, including door racks for brooms, hooks for pots and pans, and hangers for glassware and cups.
Replacing a knob with a loop can mean the difference between dependence and independence in the kitchen. Drawer suspension systems that make it possible to pull out a heavy drawer containing pots and pans are essential to some people. Most of these types of hardware are relatively inexpensive, but indispensable for persons who use their kitchens frequently.
Garbage and Cleaning
Trash compactors can help you limit the number of trips you make to the garbage can. However, compactors occupy valuable under-counter space, and make heavy loads that may weigh more than you can easily carry. Garbage disposals are an excellent way to dispose of smelly trash. If you put all your organic materials in the disposal, you can reduce your daily trip to the garbage can to a single weekly trip. However, as mentioned above, garbage disposals occupy space under the sink that you may need if you're in a wheelchair.
Appropriate tableware can ease the process of eating and eliminate embarrassment if you have unsteady hands. Lips on plates allow a person with the use of only one hand to push food against the lip, onto the fork or spoon. Glasses and stemware with contours that fit the human hand allow those with severe arthritis to drink gracefully again. If you have poor hand dexterity, molded flatware that conforms to your hands can eliminate your dependence on others to cut your food. Each of these items fosters greater independence, while reinforcing self-worth and promoting a sense of identity. With products becoming available, the institutional look is rapidly being replaced by fashionable styles.