Skip Navigation
News - AT Messenger

Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative

. . . bringing technology to you

AT Messenger Logo - Bringing Technology to You

Vol. 10, No. 3 Summer/Fall 2002

Previous Issues

Subscribe to AT Messenger
Download PDF Viewer

PDF Version (for printing)
Large Print (pdf)

Text Version

Building a Home? Here are a Few Universal Design Tips to Help Make it More Livable

By Dan Fendler, AT Specialist - Kent and Sussex ATRCs

The housing market in Delaware is booming, especially in Kent and Sussex counties. Housing starts are way up, and many people are adding on to the homes they own. After a visit to an Atlantic City home designed by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, I walked away with some great ideas that you may want to incorporate into your new home or addition

Making an Entrance

Start at your home's front door. Do you have to climb steps to get in? If the answer is yes, you have a barrier that many folks, including those using wheelchairs, walkers, or canes may have trouble negotiating. We receive several calls a month from people looking to add an accessible ramp to their home due to a change in life circumstances. If you give more thought to the design of your home, you may not need to retrofit a potentially unsightly addition.

Consider alternatives to steps before building. If done during design, ramps can add beauty to your new home. In many cases, grading the fill leading to your front door in a gently sloping manner will provide the basis for an accessible entrance. To ensure maximum accessibility, include gentle, rounded turns as opposed to sharp, angular ones. Gentle turns are easier to navigate for a person in a wheelchair. Depending on your budget, there are many different types of material available to surface the ramp. Keep in mind that the smoother the surface, the easier the access.

Low Cost Electrical Adaptations

One very simple idea that was incorporated in the Atlantic City house was the position of the electric outlets. All outlets in the home were installed about 8 inches higher than typical outlets. Installing the outlets higher makes them accessible to the wheelchair user. They are also more accessible to anyone with limited flexibility that sometimes accompanies aging.
Consider using rocker switches in place of conventional toggle switches. They are easier to use for a number of individuals. Consider motion activated light switches. Their use could eliminate the need to physically flip a switch when entering a room. Motion activated switches are available for under $10. If you have kids, think of the money and aggravation you could potentially save by installing these!

The Water Closet

Bathrooms are an accessibility challenge. One of the biggest challenges arises from the size of the room. Small rooms are hard to maneuver in, especially for a person in a wheelchair. If your budget permits, consider making the bathroom large enough to accommodate a wheelchair.

A few low cost suggestions: place the controls to the tub or shower outside the tub or shower enclosure. You can control the water flow and temperature without leaning over the tub or shower. Have an anti-scald valve installed to prevent burns related to improper temperature selection when turning on faucets (whole house valves are available for under $100 - most have adjustable settings).

Before the drywall is installed, consider having horizontal supports installed between wall support studs (at handrail height). These can be used to support bathroom handrails.
When selecting sinks, consider sinks that can be installed without a cabinet underneath. This will accommodate someone using a wheelchair (remember to insulate any exposed pipes that could burn tender legs). Or consider a designer sink that has structural handles built in.

Cabinets can also be used to create a space under the sink to accommodate wheelchairs.
There are many types of tubs and showers available that will make a bath more beautiful and more accessible. If you are thinking about including a walk-in shower in your design, try to eliminate the threshold to make bathing easier for those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. Include an adjustable showerhead in the design to accommodate different height requirements.

Elsewhere in the Home

When picking out windows, consider those that have the cranking and locking mechanisms on the lowest part of the sill. Double and single hung windows require two hands and more strength to open.

When selecting doors, opt for the widest doors possible. Pocket doors may be easier to operate by those in wheelchairs.
If your new home has stairs, make sure that they are well lit to help people with visual impairment. You can also make the stairs more visible by using different colors to make the treads stand out.

If your plans include a fireplace, consider installing it a few inches off the floor. By doing so, it will be easier to reach without bending. If the fireplace is being installed in a bedroom, installing it off the floor also makes for better viewing while in bed!

Kitchens and Laundry Rooms

Adapting a kitchen can be very costly. There are many different appliance options available to make a kitchen more accessible. Under-counter refrigerators and freezers that have either door or drawer access are available. Wall ovens and microwave ovens can be installed at more accessible heights (lower for those using wheelchairs). Adjustable height countertops and range-tops are also available.

Front-loading washers and dryers can make wash day more manageable. A washer mounted on a platform makes loading and unloading a breeze. They use a fraction of the water, are quieter, and get your clothes cleaner to boot! There are even single machine models available that will wash and dry a load of clothes. No more unloading the washer into the dryer - put the clothes in one machine, turn it on, and the next time you handle the clothes they are clean and dry.

There are many ideas that you can incorporate into your new home. Learn more about Universal Design at North Carolina State University's Universal Design website:

If you are interested in touring the Universal Design Demonstration home in Atlantic City, please contact Shirley Gash, RNS Docent Chair at 609-822-8070 for an appointment. It is well worth the trip.

Thanks to Shirley, Marilyn (our tour guide) and the entire dedicated team for graciously sharing their wonderful project with us.

Current Issue