Chef’s corner

Thato Tinte
By Thato Tinte
6 Min Read

The latest designs are helping to make kitchens universally accessible. THATO TINTE assesses how they measure up.

It is said that the kitchen is the heart of a home – a place where the family gathers and the magic happens. With a place so synonymous with warmth, conversation and tantalising aromas, it is most important that a kitchen accommodates everyone who enters it.

Barrier-free home designs that provide independence and convenience for all household members are the cornerstone of good design. Many people with disabilities require practical solutions that will not inhibit their access in the home.

The term “universal design” – coined by wheelchair user, architect and accessibility advocate Ronald Mace – means “designed products, environments and spaces that can be used by the widest range of people (abled or disabled), without the need for adaptation or specialised design”.

Simple tasks such as washing dishes or reaching to open the oven can be exasperating in impractically designed and inaccessible kitchens. KD Max – an interactive South African 3D visualisation software package used for creating kitchen and cabinetry designs – states that “a kitchen ‘work triangle’ encompasses the golden rule of kitchen designs”.

This work triangle, as defined by the SA building regulations website (, is “the logical inter-relationship of the cook’s three principal aids – the fridge, stove and sink – positioned on the points of an imaginary triangle, which should be as compact as possible within the limits of free movement between the points. These aids should be sighted so that the cook has easy access to each without obstacles in the fetching, preparing, cooking and washing up process.”

Universal Design Africa (UD Africa) specialises in the design of physical infrastructure and fittings, operating systems, information systems and safety interventions for persons with disabilities and functional limitations. Phillip Thompson, principal member of both the IDC Consulting Group and its subsidiary UD Africa, says that a common challenge faced by wheelchair users in ordinary kitchens is access.

“The primary problems are physical access, height of cupboards and working surfaces, as well as knee clearance. Having hinged doors instead of sliding doors can also impede access to cupboard contents. Drawers provide a much more accessible storage platform in the kitchen, although low drawers can still be a problem,” he explains.

He says that typical modifications include reducing worktop heights from the standard height used by standing users, and ensuring knee clearance under worktops, sinks and cooking surfaces.

Thompson points out that, as wheelchair users generally experience problems with balance, unmodified kitchens can be hazardous.

“Cooking surfaces present a serious risk, especially when users are trying to lean over hot plates and hot surfaces. Inductive cooking technology provides a cooking system that eliminates this risk,” he notes.

He recommends that readers work with designers who understand their specific functional limitations. “Low-level paraplegics have very different needs to high-level paraplegics, for example, just as an elderly person using a wheelchair has their own specific needs,” he says.

Currently, there are only a handful of designers in the country with expertise in accessible kitchen design for wheelchair users, he says, but UD Africa is working at expanding this list.

Meanwhile, he offers the following DIY tips:

  • Convert your cupboard space into horizontal and vertical drawer units;
  • Install pull-out or fold-out worktops; and
  • Carefully position primary work components of the “work triangle” to help minimise the amount of movement required.

Then there’s the question of domestic appliances, which are key features in a kitchen. For wheelchair users, the standard mass-market kitchen appliances may be challenging to operate and special aids and modifications are required. What good is a refrigerator or microwave if you can’t reach inside or grasp its handles to open it?

Manufacturer Liebherr-Africa is a subsidiary of the International Liebherr Group, which serves local construction, civil engineering and mining industries. Although not exclusively focused on the disability sector, Liebherr produces a few appliances considered to be “universal designs” – for example, the UIK1550 integrated under-counter carriage fridge, which, due to its convenient pull-out drawers, is uniquely positioned for easy use by wheelchair users.

“This unit won a 2014 ‘Plus X Award’ for most innovative brand and can securely store food with ease of access in the practical pull-out compartments and fully extendible drawers,” says Linda Roux, a sales administrator at Liebherr’s HAU division.

Liebherr-Africa’s products are found at major dealers such as Hirsch’s, Dion-Wired and Euro Appliances. (A full list of dealers is available on

Parting advice from Thompson is to start by sketching the layout with a professional advisor. “This way, you can make decisions that allow you to optimise your work triangle with the most appropriate fittings. Knowledge and experience will ensure that you achieve the optimal solution,” he concludes.

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