Top 5 Things to Consider When Designing an Accessible Kitchen

A beautiful, efficient and accessible kitchen created for everyone that lives in a home whether or not they are disabled is an achievable reality. Not only is it a reality, it makes sense to do so to ensure all family members and guests are comfortable in your kitchen and to give yourself the option to age in place if desired.

Approximately 30 million Americans currently use wheelchairs and the number of people who need accessible homes due to aging or disability continues to increase. Physical limitations require changes for safety and independence. Some of these solutions are custom ordered items; however, you can accomplish some of the modifications simply by remodeling a kitchen a little differently.

When designing a kitchen for people with physical limitations, every inch counts. Appliances and cabinets come in fixed sizes and often the available usable space limits what can be remodeled. Kitchen design is typically based on the “work triangle” layout where the sink, fridge and stove have a short walking distance between them. For an accessible kitchen, it’s ideal to have several work areas that can be accessed from a single position. When space is limited choosing options may require a trade off of the most important accommodations.The bottom line: kitchen modifications require meticulous planning.

5 things to take into account when designing an accessible kitchen are:

1. Work Surface (Kitchen Counters)

a. Typical countertops are positioned at a height of 36”. Wheelchair uses do better with the countertop height between 28″-34″ above the floor.  Some people do a combination of counter heights in a kitchen which adds interest and provides work space for people with different types of physical limitations.

b. Accessible counter workspace should be 30” wide.

c. Countertops should not be obstructed by base cabinets to allow for knee and toe clearance.

The countertop height should be determined early in the design as that height dictates the location of storage cabinets and appliances. We recommend you use adjustable tables before the install or remodel to determine the ideal height to find dimensions that work for each member of the family. Individual comfort ranges for kitchen work vary and this way you will see what layout will best meet your needs prior to committing to a permanent design. If your budget or layout does not allow you to modify the countertop height, pull-out shelves coming out of the countertop is another good way to create easily accessible work space to prepare food.

accessible kitchen

2. Kitchen Sinks

a. Sinks that have open space beneath the sink provides wheelchair or walker accessibility.. Knee clearance for a sink needs to be at least 27” high, 8” deep at the knees or 11” deep for children.

b. The drain should be placed in the rear of the sink so the piping underneath will not prevent a person in a wheelchair from rolling underneath. Pipes should be insulated or enclosed to protect legs from hot pipes.(Set water heater to a maximum heat low enough that will prevent burning.)

c.  Touch control faucets allow the user to turn on and off the faucet with one touch. A single lever faucet is another, lower cost, option to making the faucet accessible. Also, install the faucet to the side of the sink to make it more accessible for some people.

Tip: Install sliding drawers on both sides of the sink to provide easy storage of cleaning products.

accessible kitchen sink

3. Kitchen wall cabinets

a. Electric powered adjustable cabinets, which lower and raise the cabinet height with a touch of a button are great, but expensive. A lower cost option is to lower the cabinets to meet the needs of your family members.

b.  Place often used items within easy reach such as spice rack and cutting boards.

c. Wonderful accessories that make the cabinets more accessible are available these days. Examples include pull down shelves, adjustable shelves, drawer dividers, and a lazy susan cabinet.

d. Looped cabinet pulls are better than knobs for arthritic hands. With these you do not have to twist, grasp or use pinching motions.

e. Wide sliding drawers on the bottom section of the cabinetry are easy to use for most.  We recommend you place the most often used items in low drawers such as the dishes, pots/pans and glassware.

f. Other useful cabinet hardware options include: full extension drawers, touch-release drawers and doors, and swing-up hardware that allow cabinet doors to hinge at top and stay open.

accessible kitchen

4. Doorways & Hallways

a. A 36” wide door creates an accessible opening for a wheelchair or walker user. However, a 42” width is more comfortable.

b. Using swing clear hinges on the door creates a clear opening

c Lever-style door handles are easier to open than knobs.

d. Clearance for a pass through kitchen should be 40” wide.

e. The kitchen layout should include a 5 foot turning radius for wheelchairs.

accessible kitchen

5. Appliances

a. Appliances are most accessible when installed approximately 31” from the floor.

b. Electric cooktops with staggered burners and controls on the front eliminates the need to reach across hot burners. A cooktop separate from the wall oven is best so you can install each at a comfortable height. In addition, tactile controls such as raised buttons or dials with directional indicators that click into position at each setting can be used to increase safety.

c.  Raise the dishwasher 6” to 8” off the floor and allow access from either side for improved accessibility.

d. Appliance controls with a maximum operating force of 5 lbs are standard accessibility requirements. Appliances with touch pad operation are great for people who have limited finger strength and control.

e. Consider a side-hinged oven door to  allow a seated cook to get closer to opening.

f. A bottom-drawer freezer style refrigerator allows for better accessibility than a top or side freezer setup.

Tip: We recommend you visit the showroom to test out any of the appliances before you buy, find a supplier that will allow you to return the item if it turns out not to be a good fit. Also consider which way you want the appliance doors to swing open and make sure you can access the appliance without contorting your body.

accessible kitchen

Other important considerations in accessible kitchen design include:

a. Place electrical outlets lower than usual, but no lower that 15”off the floor.

b.  Install glare free lighting and good task lighting to increase visibility and create a safe cooking environment.

c. Switches & thermostats installed no higher than 48” off the floor ensures accessibility for wheelchair users.

d. Create several work areas in the kitchen that can be accessed from a single position, particularly for wheelchair users.. Suggestions for activity centers include: baking area, salad counter, children’s snack area or a pass-through between garage and pantry for transferring groceries.

e. Place lighting controls to allow yourself to turn lights on and off from different areas in the kitchen. This way you never have to navigate in the dark.

f . Use a base cabinet on wheels to transport hot dishes from the countertop to table. You can also use it  to create a moveable workspace area.

accessible kitchen

Whether a new kitchen or a remodel, an accessible kitchen requires balancing requirements for storage (cabinets), workspace (counters) and appliances. You need to consider all these factors and put everything within reach to meet your specific needs. Fortunately, these days a beautiful kitchen and an accessible kitchen are not mutually exclusive.

Please share your experiences!

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