ADA Guidelines to Designing A Wheelchair and Handicap Accessible Kitchen

What Is a Handicap Accessible Kitchen?

Accessible kitchens are designed such that individuals with disabilities or mobility issues can use them safely and comfortably. These individuals include wheelchair users, people with mobility impairments, and individuals with strength or balance limitations.

For many reasons, these individuals often have difficulty using conventional home kitchens the way they're typically designed. Fortunately, there are a number of innovative options for redesigning kitchens to make them friendlier for disabled individuals. Some of these innovations are spelled out in the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while others go above and beyond to provide ease of use for individuals with specific disabilities.

What Constitutes an ADA-Compliant Kitchen?

The ADA lays out a number of specifications for how kitchens can be made more accessible to handicapped users. Its standards are detailed and explicit, prescribing layout and positioning specifications down to the inch for full compliance, but for our purposes we'll focus only on its principles.

  • Kitchen floors should be clear of any obstructions that may impede mobility devices or present a danger to individuals at risk of falling.
  • Kitchen doors and throughways must meet a minimum width in order to accommodate mobility devices such as wheelchairs.
  • Front-operated appliances (such as ovens, ranges, refrigerators, or dishwashers) must have adequate space around them to allow a disabled individual to access them from the side.
  • Countertops and work surfaces should be at an adequate height to allow for ease of use, and, if accommodating wheelchair users, should have open space below them with no sharp or abrasive encumbrances.
  • The ADA's requirements go into far deeper detail than what we've summarized here. For more information, visit the ADA Compliance Directory.
ada compliant kitchen design

What to Consider When Creating An Accessible Kitchen Layout

When designing a fully accessible kitchen space, it's important to consider the ways in which conventional home kitchens make common tasks difficult or impossible for disabled, weakened, or mobility impaired individuals. The typical kitchen is designed for aesthetics and efficiency, but awkwardly placed appliances and counters can make for a lot of bending, reaching, and other movements that make things difficult or dangerous for some users.

Here are some ways in which kitchens can be designed to be safer and more convenient for disabled users:

Wheelchair Accessible Countertops

Kitchen work surfaces are typically positioned at a height of around 36” to accommodate the average, able-bodied user. But even abled individuals whose height falls outside the average range may find this positioning awkward. For disabled users, it can make kitchen tasks close to impossible.

For wheelchair users, kitchen counters should be positioned substantially lower—no higher than 34”, and in some cases as low as 28”. Ideally, kitchen design should be built around the needs of the user, but in cases where this is not manageable, or in kitchens where different users have different needs, height-adjustable countertops are an excellent solution.

Additionally, counters should be clear of obstructions beneath them to allow for wheelchair users to approach the work surface. The typical kitchen uses the space below a counter for storage cabinets, but this can make the surface inaccessible to wheelchair users.

Wheelchair accessible countertops in a home kitchen

Handicap Accessible Cabinets

Overhead cabinets are often positioned such that they are out of the reach of wheelchair users and can cause awkward straining for other disabled or weakened users. Accessible cabinets should be easily reachable to allow the user access without any excess bending, reaching, or straining.

As with countertops, height-adjustable cabinet designs are available. These devices can accommodate users with different needs and increase space efficiency in accessible kitchens.

Additionally. ease-of-use should be taken into consideration for cabinet design. Bar or loop style handles may be preferable to knobs, which require a closed hand and more grip strength to use. Other devices, such as adjustable shelves, top-hinged doors, lazy susan revolving shelves, etc., can make cabinets more accessible.

ADA Kitchen Sink Requirements

Kitchen sinks, like countertops, should be free of any obstructions beneath them and have enough depth, width, and height clearance for wheelchair users (ADA requirements specify at least 29” height, 11” depth, and 30” width). Sink tops should also be positioned to avoid unnecessary bending or reaching. Many height adjustable countertops include built-in sinks.

Faucet controls should be easily reachable to disabled users, and lever type handles or touch control devices are preferable knob type handles, which may require difficult gripping and twisting of the wrist.

Accessible Appliances

Appliance design and positioning is crucial for user safety in an accessible kitchen. Here are some things to consider.

handicap and wheelchair accessible kitchen appliances

Ovens

Ovens should be placed at a convenient height for the user, usually around 30”. Most high mounted ovens are too high for wheelchair users to use them safely, and range-top ovens are often placed too low for users with strength or mobility disabilities.

For many users, side-opening oven doors are preferable to standard bottom-opening doors, as they eliminate the need to reach over a hot surface. Also, retractable shelves placed just below the oven can give users a place to set hot/heavy dishes without any unsafe bending and reaching.

Cooktops/stoves

Cooktop and stove surfaces should also be set at an optimal height, with plenty of space around them to allow for safe maneuverability. Heat controls should be located on the front of the appliance to prevent having to reach across hot burners.

Refrigerators

Drawer-style, bottom-situated freezers allow for easier access, as do twin-door fridges (as opposed to single-door, side-hinged models). There should be adequate room on either side of the fridge to allow for comfortable movement.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers should be set higher than typical kitchen models in order to avoid bending and straining.

ADA Compliant Flooring

Accessible kitchen floors should have a low level of resistance to wheelchair mobility, and they should provide good slip-resistance for users who may be at risk of a fall. Hardwood and ceramic tile, for their smoothness and durability, are good options for wheelchair users, though they can be slippery when wet. Inlaid sheet vinyl or vinyl tiles also can provide high-slip resistance, though they cause a bit more friction resistance to wheelchair users.

Conclusion

Designing the safest and most accessible kitchen will ultimately come down to the needs of the user. ADA guidelines are a good start, but the best design takes into account the specific needs of its user(s). For that reason, a good, accessible kitchen will be not only spacious and comfortable, but versatile as well.

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