9 Home Upgrades That’ll Add Accessibility Without Sacrificing Style

updated Jul 29, 2020
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As a disabled person, after a long, often frustrating day of navigating inaccessible public spaces—from mapping out a route to my destination with only a handful of metro stations with elevators to choose from, to circling restaurants and bars to in search of ramps that often aren’t there—I look forward to coming home. But as with millions of others like me, a cane user with multiple disabilities, inaccessible housing is the norm—prompting us to think outside the box. “After all, a house isn’t a home unless the entire family gets to live there,” says DIY design expert Lindsey Rockers of @ThisAccessibleHome on Instagram. “As designers,” adds Blue Copper Design owner Maegan Blau, “being able to innovate is key when working with clients, regardless of their ability.” 

I spoke to both of them about accessible home upgrades that add function without sacrificing our personal design aesthetics.    

Use multi-level kitchen countertops

Kitchens are one of the most important rooms in the home, but they can also be the most inaccessible, especially due to most items being located out of reach for a wheelchair user. Thankfully, adaptations are trendier than ever. As Blau says, “I’ve been loving multi-level countertops in kitchens for prep spaces,” a design concept that allows wheelchair users or little people to prep at a counter at their height alongside someone who may need a higher countertop. “There’s a really chic way to make them look intentional and modern,” Blau says. “And pro tip: add a pot filler and connect it to your smart device; you will thank me later!”  

Install multifunctional grab bars

Accessible add-ons to the home can often appear to be too bulky or made of plastic, but sleek grab bars that can double as toilet paper holders, shower stands, or towel rails can help to seamlessly integrate these installations into your home’s design. Adaptive home retailer Invisia even has a line of luxury grab rails to help people navigate their bathrooms safely without feeling like they’re in a hospital. While we’re talking about bathrooms, Blau says that “a minimum of five-foot turning radius is ideal,” to allow for easy access for wheelchair users, and that “adding a curb-less shower is both glamorous and accessible to everyone.” As Rockers adds, “accessible can also mean beautiful!”

Consider textured upholstery 

People who are blind or low-sighted often rely on touch to maneuver about their home, so consider reupholstering or replacing your furniture—or even adding throws—with more textured and differentiating fabrics for easier identification. Make sure that after you’ve put thought into your furniture placement—and allowed for plenty of space for pathways—to limit any rearranging; the consistency helps blind or low-sighted friends and family maintain spatial familiarity to help themselves navigate.

Design accessible color schemes 

When picking out color schemes for your rooms or furniture, consider those living on the autistic spectrum as well as the low-sighted. Contrasting, solid, and bright colors can make it easier for a low-sighted person to differentiate between items and spaces; just avoid shiny glares, which can make navigation more difficult. For folks on the spectrum, muted tones—particularly pink!—can be soothing.

Widen your doorways (or rethink them altogether)

“Doorways should ideally be 36 inches wide or larger to allow for a wheelchair to comfortably maneuver through,” says Blau, so you can choose between a larger reconstruction project or consider the lower-cost alternative of replacing the hinges with expandable offset ones, like swing clear or wide throws, to widen doorways. You can also replace doors and door frames with curtains, or consider sliding glass ones for hard-of-hearing people to better identify noises around the home. 

Credit: Eoneren/Getty Images

Install smart home tech 

It’s clear to us disabled folks that universal design, a concept that takes everyone’s needs regardless of identity into account when composing environments, benefits us all. Non-disabled people need to remember that they are only temporarily abled, and as Blau told me, “news flash… the goal of life is to get old!” The normalization of smart tech benefits people with disabilities with a growing number of options on the market that increases affordability. Rockers told me that her home has “smart technology that allows our [non-mobile, non-verbal] son to control his environment via switches and eye gaze that he can access from his chair.”

Blau agrees that smart home features can aid in more ways than one. “Utilize all the features of a smart device by setting reminders for prescriptions, timers for cooking, and a schedule for the home functions throughout the day,” she says. For an interconnected home, choose a Google Home or Amazon Echo device, which both connect to a range of smart products. If you’d prefer to start with one appliance at a time, devices like the affordable Philips Hue can be Bluetooth-controlled by simply downloading their app.

Make your flooring as accessible as possible 

“Carpets are a pain for most people who use assistive devices, and let’s be honest, they aren’t the prettiest option in flooring,” says Blau. She recommends swapping out carpeting and rugs for hardwood floors; for a carpeting compromise, consider thinner level loop or cut-pile carpets. Make sure to also avoid cleaners or shiny finishes that cause glares, which make it harder for low-sighted people. If using ceramic tiles, opt for smaller ones of a maximum of two inches per square, which are better for damp areas like the bathroom. Some wheelchair users like Blau might like a rug in places where they need traction to transfer from point A to point B; make sure to use an adhesive to secure them to the floor.

Redesign your sinks 

Too-high sinks create obstacles for little people and wheelchair users. One solution is a wall-mounted, roll-under sink. If your sink is already at an accessible height but its cabinets are blocking someone’s legs, gut out the insides to allow room to roll up—just make sure that any pipes are insulated to avoid accidental scalding. Whether in the bathroom or the kitchen, try replacing faucets with touch-sensitive or smart home-enabled ones, and swap knobs for easy-to-grab levers or handles.

Illuminate and mark pathways 

Tactile warning strips, like the kind you see at crosswalks, can be stuck onto the floor at entryways and steps so that blind and low-sighted probing cane users can receive those cues. Adding lights to steps, entryways, and pathways, too, can help people avoid falls—plus they look fancy! Options include solar-powered, battery-powered, and motion-activated lights that can detect people from up to six feet away.