Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Retired Persons.
Stairs and Ramps
Stairs that are easy to use are also safe stairs. For example, handrails on stairways are an important safety factor for all of us. But for many people, stairs are useless unless they have handrails. Stairways are a necessary evil, second only to bathrooms in incidence of accidents. As we become older, stairways become more and more difficult to use and their design becomes critical. The information in this section applies to both interior and exterior stairs in your home.
Treads and Risers
Tread and riser designs are extremely important.
Risers in excess of 6-7" are difficult for many people to climb and are dangerous tripping hazards.
Outside risers should have a maximum height of 4". The tread should be wide enough to allow your foot to rest completely on the tread without extending over the edge of the step. Where the total length of a stairway is limited, you can extend tread width by installing a projecting edge, or a nosing on the front of the treads. However, unless you install them properly, nosings can create tripping hazards, especially for people with leg paralysis.
Nosings should be beveled, either by the insertion of a piece of wood or metal that will allow toes to slide up and over or by carpeting to slant the nosing projection.
Open risers (found on many exterior wooden stairs) are a real hazard to most people because of their tripping potential, but you can easily close them off with pieces of wood.
You should install handrails on both sides of your stairways so that you or anyone else who has strength on only one side will have support as you go up or come down. If you have a wide stairway or you can't provide handrails on both sides, you may want to install a single handrail in the center of the stairway. This installation allows users to keep the handrail on their strong side. Handrails should also extend beyond the top and the bottom nosings because users need their support to get on and off the last step.
Handrails should be designed so that users can grip the rail between thumb and fingers. This "grasp-ability" or opposition is essential to the safety of users.
Handrails should be mounted approximately 11/2" away from the wall to allow adequate grasping space for knuckles and fingers. They should be mounted to support up to 250 pounds at any point. You can secure a handrail by installing mollybolts through the wallboard or screwing directly into the upright studs behind the wall surface. Handrails made from wood should be properly finished to avoid splinters.
Many stairway accidents can be prevented with lighting that shines uniformly on the steps and the top and bottom landings. Be certain, however, that your stairway lights don't create glare or distract persons who use the stairs. Indirect lighting (lighting that does not shine directly on the object being lighted), is the best alternative for stairways.
Many barrier-free design specialists prescribe ramps wherever floor levels change. Ramps help people in wheelchairs, but for others they create additional problems. Bifocal wearers sometimes misjudge the correct distance and slope of a ramp. Some users slip if the surface is not properly prepared. By following the advice listed below, you can make your ramps safer.
Exterior ramps should have a maximum slope of 1" of rise for every 20" of length (1 to 20 slope) to insure that ice, snow, leaves, and other debris won't create a sliding or slipping hazard. If possible, they should be located where sunshine will reach them in winter to help melt accumulated snow or ice.
Interior ramps should have a maximum slope of 1" to 12" because many people in wheelchairs cannot push themselves up a steeper incline, and a steeper slope can cause a wheelchair to tip over backwards.
Ramps used in and outside the home are usually made of treated wood. To view the structural details, please use the link below to access a detailed construction document:
Outside, concrete or metal ramps may be more suitable than wood ramps. In some cases, ramps with an extreme slope (1 to 8, for example) may be appropriate for persons in wheelchairs if they have strong upper torsos or power wheelchairs. Before you install ramps of any kind, determine the exact needs of the people who will use them.
Landings are necessary at the top and bottom of ramps, and at intermediate levels where a ramp changes direction or rises higher than 3'. Intermediate landings provide rest areas and adequate maneuvering space for turns. Landings should be at least 5' long at all of these locations.
If you install ramps, make sure to provide handrails on both sides, for the same reasons they are needed on stairways.
Since an inclined surface creates an increased slipping hazard, you should provide a non-slip surface on all ramps. For exterior wooden ramps, you can apply paint mixed with sand. One pound of silica sand added to a gallon of paint (and mixed thoroughly) is effective. Several paint manufacturers make non-skid deck paints which provide the same type of non-skid surface.
You can also use rolled roofing material. When properly tacked down, it provides a good non-slip surface for walking or wheeling.
If your ramps are exposed to snow and ice, or have an extreme slope, you or another attendant will have to assist members of your household or visitors who use wheelchairs. Battens (small strips of wood nailed to the surface) provide adequate footing for this purpose.
Broom-finished concrete is an excellent surface for exterior concrete ramps.
Make sure the broom strokes are perpendicular to the slope of the ramp. On interior ramps, most surfaces work adequately if they aren't slippery. Try to avoid using carpeting, waxed linoleum, or glossy painted surfaces.
Portable ramps are sometimes adequate, but are usually short and can only facilitate a small level change. They are available from many surgical supply houses, and from manufacturers.