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Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: LIFE Center

Adapting a Home for Wheelchair Accessibility

Reviewed September 2016
Author: Kimberly Eberhardt Muir , MS, OTR/L
Former Program Specialist
Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
There are several ways to create a more accessible space for a person in a wheelchair. Some options include: altering an existing floor plan, building an addition, converting existing rooms, or buying a new home. The following guidelines will be helpful to anyone planning for wheelchair accessible housing.

Always measure the width and length of your wheelchair since there are many different sizes. The dimensions listed below refer to standard wheelchairs. Owners of power and reclining models may need to modify the measurements based on the length and width of the chair. It is important to identify specific needs.

Entrance and Exit

Parking: If you use a garage, make sure the entrance is high enough for a raised roof van and wide enough to allow the use of a wheelchair lift or to make an easy wheelchair transfer. Approximately eight feet is needed for a wheelchair lift and five feet of space is needed for a transfer from the wheelchair.

illustration of optimal parking space dimensions for
cars and vans
Illustration of optimal parking space dimensions-cars/vans

Specifications for a ramp or pathway to entrance

• 36 to 48” wide pathways
• 32 to 36” high hand rails that extend 1' beyond ramp
• Slip resistant surface (non–slip strips, indoor/outdoor carpeting, sand paint)
• Covering for inclement weather
• Ramp materials: wood, concrete expanded aluminum
• 12” of ramp for every 1” of vertical rise
• Free swinging (no spring or hydraulic mechanism)
• ½” or less threshold edge height
• Option: electric entrance door opener
• If a ramp is longer than 30 feet, it needs to change direction. With a change of direction, a level platform or landing should be used. The minimum landing size required is 5' x 5'.
• If there is no room for a ramp and/or the ramp is too steep or unsafe, a vertical lift or elevator may be used.
• Ask your occupational therapist for information on lifts, ramps and elevators.

Interior/General Living Space

32” minimum distance between frames, although some chairs can negotiate a 28”doorway; it depends on the width of the chair.

Options to increase the width of doorways:

• Offset, Z–shaped door hinges
• Remove the frame on the door
• Remove the door itself
• Reverse the swing of the door

Illustration of optimal doorway width
Illustration of optimal doorway width

Door Handle

• 36” from floor
• Levers preferred over knobs


• Eliminate if possible
• Use threshold ramp, bevel, or recess


• 36 to 48” wide
• Consider using corner protectors/bumper guards


• Hardwood or tile preferred
• No slip mats
• If there is a carpet, choose low pile


• 40” from floor is optimal
• Levers or rocker switches (operate with closed fist)


• Accessible in bedroom and bathroom
• Use cordless or cell phone for increased portability


• Maintain adequate wheelchair passageway
• Table or work area should have at least 29” leg clearance underneath
• Remove breakable objects on furniture


• 16” or less from floor if commode or shower chair is used over the toilet
• 17 to 18” high if pivoting to transfer to toilet
• 2 ½' to 3' transfer space on one side, depending on height


• 34” or less from floor
• Open underneath with insulated pipes is optimal
• Lever controls – single faucet preferred
• Adjoining counter space
• Lowered, tilted mirror


• 2½' of transfer space on side for transfer/bench
• Reinforced walls for grab bars (able to withstand 300 pounds of pressure in any direction)
• Hand held shower
• Grab bars should be 2 to 2½' long and 32 to 36” high

Roll–in shower

• 5' x 5' optimal space
• ½ ” or less threshold
• Drain in far corner, 1” lower than bathroom floor
• Grab bars on showerhead wall and adjacent wall 30 to 32” from the floor
• Soap dish 30 to 36” from floor
• Hand held shower adapter able to convert to standard showerhead with diverter button
• Antiscald device so temperature does not exceed 120º; protects sensory impaired skin from burns

KitchenTurning Radius

• 5' x 5' optimal

Illustration of optimal turning radius
Illustration of optimal turning radius


• 30 to 33” from floor optimal height
• 27 to 29” knee clearance optimal


• Side by side model preferred


• 34” or less from floor
• Insulated pipes beneath underside of sink
• Thermostatic control on faucet sink hose


• Pull out shelves
• Lazy Susan cupboard
• Open shelving
• Track shelving
• Wall mounted peg board to hang pans


• Front controls preferred
• Mirror over stove to see contents in deeper pots may help


• Place on countertop in area which is easy to reach


• Front loading models better


• Firm mattress – 22” from floor optimal for transfer from wheel chair
• 3' on either side of bed for wheel chair transfer
• May need space for hospital bed


• Sliding doors
• Rods 4' or less from floor


• Pull handles or straps
• 34” or less from floor

Set Priorities before Starting a Modification Project
Most people work on the major architectural barriers first. Priority is usually: entrance, bathroom, bedroom, and then other rooms of the house. The permanence and quality of modifications depends on the needs of the person using the wheelchair and family, estimated time spent in the home, available finances, and whether the residence is being rented or owned. The following guidelines can help the modification process go more smoothly.

• To avoid over–designing, recognize your abilities and disabilities.
• Ask other people with disabilities for advice. They can refer reputable contractors and give suggestions based on personal experience.
• Know your individual needs. Analyze and operate all equipment before buying to make sure it works for you.
• Use a specialty or standard contractor.
• Try to solve problems with a minimal investment in time and money.
• Always review plans.

See below for References:

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