Making an Old Home Handicap Accessible

As I became more disabled, my partner and I found it necessary to retrofit our home (a two-story bungalow built in 1916) for handicap access. As someone who became disabled later in life, I initially had a difficult time imagining what changes were needed to ensure my safety and allow me to access our main floors and yard. The process of retrofitting our home has taught me a lot about accessibility products, so I thought I would share a bit of what I have learned. What follows is a list of changes we made to our home with brief descriptions of each. Whenever possible, I have also included websites and other information about where to find these products. The websites are not intended as endorsements of particular brands or installers; I suspect that the products themselves are interchangeable—that one step-in tub is as good as any other, for instance. I only offer them as “starting points” for people who might wish to have similar products installed in their homes.

Wheelchair Ramp –I feel fortunate that we were able to add to our home a permanent ramp with a deck at the top. We enclosed an outdoor porch and the automatic door I describe below leads from that enclosure onto the deck at the top of the ramp. On nice days, I can take my chair out onto the deck or I can access most of the front yard using my power chair. The wheelchair ramp also allows me to leave the house and tootle around the neighborhood a bit so that I feel less housebound than I would if I did not have such easy access to the outside world. These small bits of independence are essential to my psychological and physical well-being.

One big lesson we learned when we set out to build the ramp is that you really can take to heart the old adage “If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.” Initially, we hired a contractor who gave us an estimate of only a few thousand dollars for the enclosure and the ramp. We should have known that the estimate was way too low, but we threw caution to the wind and paid the full amount up front. What were we thinking? That contractor drew his “plans” for the ramp on a piece of scratch paper and assured us that we would not need city building permits for either the enclosure or the ramp. Need I even reveal the punchline? The guy disappeared with our money after several months of broken promises to appear and begin work. We eventually got our money back, but only because we filed a police report that resulted in an arrest warrant against the scoundrel. About a year later his attorney contacted us to tell us that a judge had ordered him to return the money in order to avoid incarceration. By that time, we had given up all hope of ever seeing our money again, so that call came as a happy surprise.

Eventually, a friend who teaches architecture at the university where we work used our need for an enclosure and ramp as a “teachable moment” for one of his students and the two of them worked together on the design. That friend also put us in touch with an excellent contractor who did all of the construction. Just to be clear, city building permits are necessary to build permanent wheelchair ramps because they must be inspected to assure that they have been built to ADA specifications. As a matter of fact, the specifications for wheelchair ramps are much more complicated than one might imagine, as evidenced by the following excerpt from the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG):

  • 4.8 Ramps.
  • 4.8.1* General. Any part of an accessible route with a slope greater than 1:20 shall be considered a ramp and shall comply with 4.8. Appendix Note
  • 4.8.2* Slope and Rise. The least possible slope shall be used for any ramp. The maximum slope of a ramp in new construction shall be 1:12. The maximum rise for any run shall be 30 in (760 mm) (see Fig. 16). Curb ramps and ramps to be constructed on existing sites or in existing buildings or facilities may have slopes and rises as allowed in 4.1.6(3)(a) if space limitations prohibit the use of a 1:12 slope or less. Appendix Note
  • 4.8.3 Clear Width. The minimum clear width of a ramp shall be 36 in (915 mm).
  • 4.8.4* Landings. Ramps shall have level landings at bottom and top of each ramp and each ramp run. Landings shall have the following features:
  • (1) The landing shall be at least as wide as the ramp run leading to it.
  • (2) The landing length shall be a minimum of 60 in (1525 mm) clear.
  • (3) If ramps change direction at landings, the minimum landing size shall be 60 in by 60 in (1525 mm by 1525 mm).
  • (4) If a doorway is located at a landing, then the area in front of the doorway shall comply with 4.13.6. Appendix Note
  • 4.8.5* Handrails. If a ramp run has a rise greater than 6 in (150 mm) or a horizontal projection greater than 72 in (1830 mm), then it shall have handrails on both sides. Handrails are not required on curb ramps or adjacent to seating in assembly areas. Handrails shall comply with 4.26 and shall have the following features:
  • (1) Handrails shall be provided along both sides of ramp segments. The inside handrail on switchback or dogleg ramps shall always be continuous.
  • (2) If handrails are not continuous, they shall extend at least 12 in (305 mm) beyond the top and bottom of the ramp segment and shall be parallel with the floor or ground surface (see Fig. 17).
  • (3) The clear space between the handrail and the wall shall be 1 – 1/2 in (38 mm).
  • (4) Gripping surfaces shall be continuous.
  • (5) Top of handrail gripping surfaces shall be mounted between 34 in and 38 in (865 mm and 965 mm) above ramp surfaces.
  • (6) Ends of handrails shall be either rounded or returned smoothly to floor, wall, or post.
  • (7) Handrails shall not rotate within their fittings. Appendix Note
  • 4.8.6 Cross Slope and Surfaces. The cross slope of ramp surfaces shall be no greater than 1:50. Ramp surfaces shall comply with 4.5.
  • 4.8.7 Edge Protection. Ramps and landings with drop-offs shall have curbs, walls, railings, or projecting surfaces that prevent people from slipping off the ramp. Curbs shall be a minimum of 2 in (50 mm) high (see Fig. 17).
  • 4.8.8 Outdoor Conditions. Outdoor ramps and their approaches shall be designed so that water will not accumulate on walking surfaces.

Clearly, a permanent ramp built to ADA specifications needs to be carefully planned and constructed, as well as inspected by a professional. There are, of course, impermanent options for wheelchair ramps, but even those must meet specific requirements for safety. In our situation, the best financial option was to go with the permanent ramp because the door leading to it was quite high off the ground. Should you hope to build a ramp on your own home many big box home improvement stores provide plans free of charge. Here is one example: .

Automatic Door – As soon as it became clear that we would need to build a wheelchair ramp I knew that it would be important for me to have anautomatic door leading onto the ramp. I had been using a power chair for several months and more than once I had been caught behind a heavy door that I couldn’t open while also maneuvering my chair. I imagined that automatic doors – the kind that operate with pushbuttons – would be at least relatively commonplace in homes outfitted with wheelchair ramps. When  I discussed my desire for an automatic door with my contractor he informed me that what I would need would be an apparatus that could connect to just about any door. Because he hadn’t ever installed one in a home, he did not know how to locate one. Lucky for me, I have a friend who works at a local door company that has an affiliation with a company that installs automatic doors in businesses. After a bit of negotiation we determined what I would need and the door was installed.

Here’s how it works: the electronic apparatus is attached to my back door and I have the ability to work it using either a punch button on the inside wall next to the door or a remote control that I have hanging from the armrest of my power chair. When I activate the door the lock is released and the door works in the same way that similar doors installed in businesses work. It stays open long enough for me to get out onto the top of the ramp and then it closes and locks automatically behind me. I can also use a second button on the remote to make the door stay open longer if I need to bring in packages or something like that. The door has been an extraordinary convenience; it allows me to go in and out of the house without frustration or the need for assistance.

I was surprised to learn from the installer that I was the first person to ask him to install one of these doors in my home; before he put mine in he had only installed them in businesses. I suspect that the reason for that is that most people are concerned about what this kind of door might cost. I had the same concerns. The door I chose was decidedly NOT inexpensive; it cost about $3000 for the door (mine is an industrial grade metal door, but a less expensive door would work), the automated opener (including wall-mounted button and remote control), and installation. In my case, I was enclosing the back porch at the same time, so it made sense to install the particular kind of door I chose. If you already have a door that is accessible using a wheelchair or power chair, there are several options for automatic doors that are much less expensive than the one I chose. For instance, the options on this website can be attached to any door in your home: .

Step-in Tub –Like so many other people with MS, I am unable to stand for long enough to take a shower. For a while I tried to address that issue using shower stools, but our bathroom has a tub/shower combination, and as my legs weakened, I became unable to step over the side of the tub. From what I have seen there are generally three solutions to this problem: one is to install a bathtub lift that allows a person to transfer over the side of the tub and then serves as a shower seat; another is to remove the tub entirely and create a walk-in shower with a seat or a roll-in shower that will accommodate a manual wheelchair; that third option would be to install a step-in tub. We chose the walk-in tub because my partner’s knees are bad and she could soak in the tub, taking advantage of its jets for massage.

When I was researching her options I downloaded a number of images that might be useful to others who need to make their bathrooms more accessible. I apologize in advance for the fact that these are all advertisements. I wanted to avoid advertising for companies, but the only videos I could find were commercials.


Stair Lift –Early on, it became clear to us that as my disability increased we could choose to live on one floor of our home, move to another home, or find a way for me to be transported from one floor to another. Our home is a bungalow built in the early part of the 20th century. It is not large and could never accommodate any kind of elevator system, so we knew that if I was going to continue to use the second floor of our home we would need to install a stair lift. I did some research and decided that I preferred the Acorn stair lift to the others on the market. However, I suspect that like other accessibility products for the home, the choice of stair lift depends on personal needs. In other words, I suspect that one brand is no better or worse than another.

My stair lift, like all of the items described here, absolutely transformed my life. At this point, I am unable to lift my legs high enough to climb even one step, so the flight of steps to the second floor of her home would be absolutely impossible for me to use.

One thought on “Access
  1. Hi there, You’ve done an incredible job. I will certainly digg it and personally suggest to my friends.
    I am confident they’ll be benefited from this website.

I Love Your Comments! I hope you'll keep them coming!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s