9 Little Ways to Make Your Home Accessible (and Comfortable!) for Physically-Disabled Guests

published May 8, 2021
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

It’s fair to say that visiting loved ones can be challenging at the best of times. From lumpy futons and scratchy sheets to territorial pets and polarizing A/C choices, staying with someone else can be a lot! If your health depends on navigating these differences, a family reunion or even a stay with friends in a different city can feel like a mission to Mars.

Living with a disability means that the little things can make a big difference. I have spinal nerve damage, which causes me chronic pain as well as reduced mobility. Sometimes my pain is so bad, I can’t even handle sitting in a chair, and one of the few ways to ease the inflammation in my spine is by lying down with an ice pack for a while. Asking to be excused so I can deal with these moments can make me feel self-conscious, especially in an unfamiliar home — so the first time my boyfriend brought me an ice pack while I was at his place, it was more romantic than a bunch of flowers.

Preparing for guests with physical disabilities doesn’t always mean expensive home modifications. Thoughtful touches and inexpensive home aids can make your place feel like a home away from home, for anyone. Here are nine ways to make your home disability-friendly before your guest arrives.

Before your guest arrives, ask them about their needs and requests.

A major issue people with disabilities face is a lack of autonomy. Strangers think it’s helpful to push a wheelchair across a road without asking or to put crutches away, often out of reach. But these things are invasive and can increase feelings of vulnerability, so give your guests options and let them make their own choices.

“As long as you are being respectful, most disabled people don’t mind answering questions about their disability,” Meghan Parker, the director of advocacy at the New York Association on Independent Living, told Apartment Therapy. “That being said, this varies based on the individual and in what the actual question is.”

There’s no way around the “stairs conversation” unless you live in a single-level home. Some guests with physical disabilities don’t mind being helped upstairs, while others might find that stressful. Because communication is key, it’s helpful to send a photo of potentially challenging areas, such as stairs, doorways, and bathrooms, so your guests know what to expect and can help you plan for their specific needs. Starting the conversation early can also alleviate a lot of anxiety on their end. 

If you’re unsure of how to meet your guests’ needs, just ask! There’s a strange idea that talking about disability is rude, so people feel awkward around the subject. Hotels and rentals ask guests for their needs, so why shouldn’t you? Asking what your guests need shows them that you care, but it’s important to respect boundaries and privacy in the process. “A good rule to keep in mind is anything that would feel too personal for a stranger to ask you on the street is too personal for you to ask a disabled person,” Parker notes. 

Above all, let your guest know that your home is also a safe space for them to tell you if you make a mistake or two. This might very well happen — but it’s just as important to fix the issue and move onto the time you’ve had planned together.

Credit: Zoe Burnett

Map out a friendly floor plan.

It’s worth asking yourself if your guest can actually move around in your home. You might need to make some adjustments to room layouts to allow for guests who use crutches, a wheelchair, or some other assistive device. It can be helpful to push your couch back to widen a walkway or move a thick rug that might get caught in a wheelchair’s wheels.

Door hooks and light switches can present height issues for people who cannot reach them, but there are simple, temporary fixes available, such as hooks with Command-strip backs, which are a cheap and easy way to temporarily install hardware your guest might like. You can also apply a extender to most types of light switches — and given that they’re also perfect for small children, you might not even want to remove them!

Secure area rugs and other mats.

Many modern buildings have hardwood flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, which is perfect for the vacuum-averse, but when those floors are topped with rugs that aren’t secured with a rug pad, that can present real risks for disabled guests. A sliding rug can send anyone flying, and that risk is especially true for someone who might not be so steady on their feet. Rug grip stickers discreetly keep your rugs in place and are available online or in most home stores. 

Alternatively, you could provide slippers or socks with grips on their soles for your guests. Turn-down service and pillow mints are optional.

Double-check the bathroom.

Slipping is also a risk in the bathroom. In-shower slip mats are an inexpensive way to make your guest feel safe, and it’s a good idea to make sure your bath mat has a nonskid base.

If your guest has mobility needs, you could ask them if they need a shower stool. They might bring one with them, but you could pick one up for less than $25. If you want to invest in a nicer option for a regular guest, wooden shower stools are stylish and practical. You can also use a stool you already own, as long as it doesn’t present additional seating hurdles, and you don’t mind it getting wet.

Check the temperature.

Your guest might be sensitive to temperature extremes, as heat and cold can each have a major impact on certain symptoms. So it’s worth asking your guest if they need the thermostat set to a warmer or cooler temperature. If your home is older, you might not have a central heating system, or it might not work as well in certain rooms. If this is the case, it could be worth getting a space heater or heated blanket if you know your guest room is on the cooler side.

If your guest has joint problems or a condition causing chronic pain, ice packs or hot water bottles can provide comfort or relief. Leave a hot water bottle on the guest bed, and let your visitor know ice packs are free to grab from the freezer on arrival. 

A bath can soothe anyone’s aching body after a long journey, and can be especially welcome to someone whose body is under extra stress due to a disability. Make sure the tub is clean and ready, and ensure the stopper and drain work properly. If you want, you can also put together a basket filled with body wash and other essentials — a loofah with a long-reach arm might be a nice touch — and it’s worth checking with your guest to see if there are any ingredients they prefer, or steer clear of entirely.

Credit: Minette Hand

Check the guest bed.

Whether you have a guest bed or a pull-out futon, there are plenty of ways to give your guest a better night’s sleep, such as a memory foam mattress topper, which can help distribute weight and ease pressure points. Give your guest extra sheets and blankets, so they can regulate their temperature as needed. Staying warm can help those with poor circulation or conditions like arthritis, and those who overheat easily might prefer to sleep with just a top sheet rather than a comforter. Extra pillows are also key for many people with spine issues, so give your guest a couple of firm and soft pillows, so they can position themselves best. 

However, all of this is useless if your mattress is like sleeping on a bag of rubble — or if a firmer bed would actually accommodate your guest’s needs better than a pillowy topper. If you’re in the market for a good guest bed, it can be worthwhile to keep various needs in mind — and as always, chat with your guest before they arrive to see how you can adjust your rooms accordingly.

Make your living room comfortable for everyone.

Not all seating is created equally, and if your couch is low and deep, it can be difficult for guests with physical disabilities or spine issues to get comfortable. “Unfortunately, when you sink into soft furnishings, like a soft sofa, your lumbar region isn’t well-supported, and as you sink into the sofa your lumbar spine is put under greater stress,” Alan Hedge, a professor emeritus at Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, told Apartment Therapy.

Make sure you have extra seating available, and firm pillows to use for extra back support — Hedge recommends using a cushion or a rolled-up towel to help provide support, and for people to stand up periodically if they can to reset and rest. This goes for people who use wheelchairs, too. Just because someone uses a wheelchair doesn’t mean they want to stay in it all day! Let them know if you have a chair they can switch to or pillows to use in any given room. (Ideally, this chair would sit at a similar height to their wheelchair.) 

“Some people who use wheelchairs or scooters might find it more comfortable to transfer to a chair,” Parker noted, adding that other people might have difficulty transferring from one seat to the other. Whatever your guest’s decision, it’s important to respect their autonomy. “There is no reason to discuss it beyond making the offer,” she added.

Many people with poor circulation experience leg swelling, which means literally putting their feet up after a long day is essential. Keep footrests nearby, or designate a certain part of the coffee table as a safe space to put feet on, perhaps under a pillow, you can easily wash.

Double-check your dining situation.

Depending on your guest’s needs, mealtime might be difficult. They might need a quick exit for a bathroom break or just a break from the conversation. Check to see if your guest wants to be seated by the door, or at least not hemmed into a corner, so they can discreetly dip out as needed.

Your dining table may not have been designed for someone who uses a wheelchair, so make sure there’s a chair for your guest if they want it. If this isn’t an option, why not serve meals buffet-style and gather in the living room to eat? This keeps things casual and removes a lot of complications for guests with physical disabilities or digestive issues.

It’s always worth asking any guest if they have any dietary requirements, and this goes double for guests with physical disabilities. Before they arrive, ask if they’d like you to stock your fridge with anything in particular, or if they’ll need you to make room in the fridge for something that needs to stay chilled, such as some medications. If you’re staying in for dinner, try to serve dishes family style, so guests can control their plate, and if plan on eating out, put together a list of local restaurants that cater to dietary needs. Deciding on a place to eat as a group can be difficult enough, so narrowing down the options in advance takes the pressure off for everyone.

And remember: Extra touches go a long way.

Anticipating needs before the guest thinks of them is the ultimate hosting goal. Your guest might not think of asking for bedside extras like a carafe of water, but it could save a difficult trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Earplugs can drown out unfamiliar sounds, while an eye mask can help block out light if your curtains are thin or your guest room gets a heavy dose of sunlight early in the morning. When in doubt, think about gestures you would appreciate at a hotel.