Home Safety for People with Disabilities
How to modify your home to reduce your risk of injuries.
Although we rarely think about it, home safety is a critical aspect of our daily lives. This is even more relevant for individuals with disabilities and mobility impairments, who face additional challenges in preventing accidental injuries and planning for emergencies within their home.
No matter what your level of physical ability, however, it’s necessary to take precautionary measures to prepare yourself for those unexpected scenarios that may occur when you are most vulnerable––in the comfortable confines of your house or apartment.
The National Safety Council reports that since 1992, the death rate from injuries in home and community settings increased 30%; more than half of all injury- related deaths and 75% of all disabling injuries are occurring in our homes and communities. Although these statistics may be somewhat alarming, there are a variety of ways you can protect yourself, whether by adding safety features to your home, preparing an emergency checklist, or modifying rooms to make them more accessible.
For people with disabilities, bathroom safety and accessibility is a high priority when modifying a home. Widening bathroom doorways (i.e., a minimum width of 32 inches) should be your first consideration if you use a wheelchair or walker. This can be accomplished by installing an “off set door hinge,” which is designed to swing the door clear of the opening increasing the clearance width by approximately 2 inches. Another option is to replace the existing door unit entirely. This may entail reframing the opening so it is wider and purchasing a wider door. These design principles can also be incorporated in other areas of the home.
Transferring from a wheelchair to a bathtub can be a struggle, particularly for people with limited mobility or balance problems who may have difficulties stepping into a bathtub. While some will find it only necessary to install grab bars, transfer seats, and non-slip tub mats, others will feel more comfortable installing a bench that extends outside of the bathtub, a swivel-style shower seat, or a roll-in shower. Sinks can also be installed to allow wheelchair access. This will expose the plumbing pipes requiring covering with insulation or boxing them in to prevent contact with sharp objects and burns by hot water pipes (this modification can also be applied to kitchen sinks).
Other beneficial accessibility options include height-adjustable sinks, toilets, and shelves; sensor or lever-type faucets (for those with limited grasping ability); motion-activated fixtures; raised toilet seats (for those who have trouble bending or getting up from low positions); toilet flush extensions and toilet paper clamps (especially useful for people with upper limb amputations); and anti-scald temperature controls for those with limited sensation in their extremities.
Stairways and Ramps
According to the Home Safety Council, falls account for approximately one-third of all home injury deaths annually, and falls involving stairs or steps are the second leading cause of fall-related deaths. The National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification reports that stairways are second only to bathrooms in incidence of accidents. To avoid injuries, make sure that handrails are properly installed on all stairways in your home. Generally, handrails should be mounted to support up to 250 lbs. (i.e. handrails should be screwed into studs or blocking, not into Sheetrock) and located approximately 1.5 inches from the walls on both sides of the staircase to allow enough space so that you can firmly grasp the rails.
Handrails should also extend beyond the top and bottom of the staircase to offer support when getting on and off the last step. For staircases that are extremely wide, it might help to install an additional handrail in the center of the staircase.
You should also make sure that all staircases in your home are adequately lit and that lighting does not create glare or shadows on the steps. Always keep your stairways clear of obstructions. Exterior steps, that endure the elements, should always be kept clear of ice, snow, leaves, etc. You should check them periodically for cracks or lose bricks, cement, or stone. If there are toddlers or young children in your home, use safety gates at the bottom and top of the staircases. If you are having someone install a new staircase, pay close attention to tread (width of step) and riser (height of step) dimensions. Risers should not exceed 7 inches and the tread should be wide enough so that your foot does not extend over the edge of the step.
Avoid placing throw rugs at the bottom of staircases because they can present a tripping hazard. If, however, you must use them, you can make them safer by securing them with carpet tape and skid- resistant backing.
If you require the use of ramps, there are important safety features you should keep in mind. Interior and exterior ramps should have a maximum slope of 1 inch of height for every 12 inches of length. A ramp exceeding these measurements can cause a tipping hazard for wheelchair-users and problems for others with limited mobility. Just as in the case of stairways, ramps should be kept clear of obstructions and also be equipped with handrails. The surface of your ramp should be made with materials that prevent skidding or slippage. For wooden ramps, non-skid deck paints work well as do self-adhesive non-skid strips; try to use a broom-finish (perpendicular to slope of the ramp) on concrete ramps.
Kitchens are not only among the most heavily used rooms in a home or apartment, but also one of the most dangerous. Before settling on a “standard” kitchen design, make sure it adequately addresses your accessibility needs. Kitchen design should focus on safety, mobility, accessibility, and comfort. Wheelchair users and others with limited mobility must be able to easily and safely maneuver throughout the kitchen.
Wheelchair measurements (front-to-back, including footrests) are vital to ensure effi cient kitchen design and to determine the turning radius needed for the individual to easily travel from one area of the kitchen to another. The height of wheelchair armrests (29 inches on average) is also needed so that counter tops can be installed at the proper height to allow the individual greater access to work surfaces (recommended counter top height is a minimum of 28 inches and should be no higher than 34 inches). Adequate knee space under counter surfaces is another important element for wheelchair-users and those who need to sit while performing kitchen tasks. (Knee spaces should be approximately 30 inches wide, 27 inches high, and 19 inches deep, but confirm that these dimensions will be adequate for you. Make sure there is adequate height under the sink for knee clearance, as well as adequate depth for knee and toe clearance.)
In this case, rolling storage carts may be a good alternative if you lose storage space due to your accessibility needs. You should also keep in mind that people who use electric scooters for mobility will need more space than wheelchair-users to maneuver around the kitchen, as will kitchens that are commonly used by more than one person at a time.
If installing a stove top instead of a stove, consider dropping the stove top portion of the counter top to 28 inches. When a pot is on the stove top, you’ll still be able to see in the pot. Also, consider installing a pot-filler behind the stove top. This will enable you to fill an empty pot with water while it’s on the stove top, instead of sloshing a filled pot from the sink to the stove top.
Be sure to also use non-skid fl oors and floor covering to avoid injuries. A kitchen-grade fire extinguisher should be readily available and mounted in an easily accessible area. The kitchen sink should be shallow (5 to 6 ½ inches deep) and equipped with a loop or single-lever faucet. It is also helpful to have one with a long hose/sprayer, which can be utilized to fill pots with water without requiring you to move the pot into the sink or lift it.
People with visual impairments may benefit from a smaller work triangle so that all appliances and work areas are closely accessible. Pathways for transferring groceries into the kitchen should be kept as short and straight as possible.
When installing kitchen appliances including dishwashers, refrigerators, and ovens, take into consideration the height that would be most suitable for you to work with them. For instance, people who have trouble bending should try to install appliances, such as dishwashers, higher to make it easier to load and unload. When purchasing an oven try to find models that have knobs or push- button controls in front so that you do not have to reach across the burners. Ovens with staggered burners are also useful to avoid burns while cooking with multiple pots and pans. Wheelchair-users can also install a mirror above the oven surface so they can more easily observe cooking progress. If you have limited upper limb strength, ceramic cook tops or flat-surface burners will make it easier to slide pots or pans from one area to another. You can use pan holders to keep pots in place while stirring.
Others accessibility options include wall ovens; a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer which allows easier access to people with various disabilities; adjustable counter tops; lapboards to make food preparation easier; folding or pull-out surfaces such as cutting boards; tall stools or adjustable height chairs; sling belts which can be installed on a counter to keep you stable if you are fatigued or cannot stand for long periods of time; hangers for glassware and cups; lazy susans for corner cabinets; and drawer suspension systems to make it easier to pull out drawers that contain heavy items such as pots and pans.
For more information about home safety specifications, call Program Counsel Kleo King at 800-404-2898, ext. 310.