Understanding accessibility in a home

Mandy Latimore
By Mandy Latimore
11 Min Read

There are various things to consider when adapting or searching for an accessible home. MANDY LATIMORE discusses for what you need to look out

The new year usually brings with it the expectation of new beginnings. Some look to a new career or job direction and with it may come the opportunity to change the areas where you live, whether it is local or into another city or province.

You may also just decide that you would like to refresh your existing home. Many of us are in accommodation that is not completely accessible. You may just want to finally complete those adjustments that will make it fully accessible for your specific needs.

With that in mind … what is an accessible home and how do you design it?

Accessible house design accommodates everyone including people with disabilities. This includes homes that are minimally accessible, but that can easily be made accessible at a later date; and houses that are completely accessible with power door openers, large bathrooms and so on. We can categorise accessible house designs as follows:


A visitable house includes basic accessibility features that allow most people to visit, even if they have limitations such as impaired mobility. Basic features of a visitable house include a level entry, wider doors throughout the entrance level and an accessible washroom on the main floor.


An adaptable house is designed to be adapted economically at a later date to accommodate someone with a disability. Features include removable cupboards in a kitchen or bathroom to create knee space for a wheelchair user, or a knock-out floor panel in a closet to allow installation of an elevator.


An accessible house includes features that meet the needs of a person with a disability. Most accessible houses feature open turning spaces within rooms, step-free shower stalls and kitchen work surfaces with knee space below.


Universal house design recognises that everyone who uses a house is different and comes with different abilities that change over time. Features include lever door handles that everyone can use, enhanced lighting levels to make it as easy as possible to see, stairways that feature handrails that are easy to grasp, and easy-to-use appliances.

In today’s electronic age, this would include various apps that can make your home a Smart Home and enables user to control entry access, lighting, temperature and many other functions from their smart device.

If you are looking for a new home, or going to adjust your existing one, you need to keep these options in mind. I always try to imagine myself arriving at the property and so start with:

  • Accessible parking area preferably under cover.
  • Level entry at the main entrance and exit to outer living spaces.
  • Doors and other openings throughout the main floor that provide at least 810 mm of clear width.
  • Wider hallways throughout the main floor to reach all of the living spaces, as well as the main floor bathroom.
  • A main floor bathroom that is large enough to accommodate a person using a device such as a walker, a wheelchair or a scooter.
  • Accessible kitchen with a lowered prep and cooking area, access to washing up and laundry facilities.
  • Accessible switches and controls.
  • Accessible bedrooms including cupboards.

An access route from the driveway into the house (preferably under cover if you can). So, if there isn’t access to the front door, perhaps access can be through the covered garage area, which will need the extra space for a pathway that is not in the parking area of any vehicles.

A double garage with extra space is the best option, however you could use the extra bay as space for access and arrange for a second car to be parked elsewhere.

Ramps should be installed with an accessible gradient which is 1:17. This means for every centimetre/meter (cm/m) you have to go up, you have to make the ramp 17cm/m long.

A ramp length cannot be longer than 10 m without a landing, so it is always best to get professional assistance if your height difference is higher than 60 cm.

An internal access route which offers access to the general living areas. The trends today are for open plan general areas, which really accommodate everyone as long as the space to manoeuvre around and between furniture is wide enough, and that access to doors and windows are not obstructed.

Counter heights are usually at 900 mm above the floor and this restricts access to the plugs on the back wall or taps situated at the back of the basins. If installing new basins, place the taps on the side. The cooker should also have the controls either on the front or on the side if on the horizontal surface.

It is easier to have all the lower storage units converted to drawers as this assists everyone to access the items that are placed at the back of the space. If possible, plan to lower one work surface or include a fold out work space that is at a height of 760 mm. If possible, install an angled mirror over the cooker to be able to see into the pots.

Universally accessible reach ranges for switches. Controls should be placed between 900 to 1 200 mm from the finished floor (a good standard is to place all controls at 1 000 mm).

Actual switches should be easy to activate, so larger surface areas for the switch or large press button switch mechanisms make it easier for all who have difficulty with dexterity of their hands and fingers. Of course automation of doors and lights make these actions much easier for all.

For flooring, smooth slip-resistant surfaces throughout the property are suggested. Wood laminate, new vinyl materials and coloured concrete matrixes are recommended. Tiles may be an option; however, they tend to crack and chip and the grouting will need to be refreshed on a regular basis.

Access to the outer areas is best through sliding or bi-fold doors as long as they are installed correctly with a flush transition by insetting the door slider frame.

The same should be arranged for any security doors. Please also remember that concertina security gates will reduce the total open width of the doorway, and so need to be able to be installed to fold up after the opening, or fold out to keep the opening wide enough of access for persons using mobility devices.

Standard single door widths do not accommodate everyone. So, if you are thinking of making adjustments, plan to widen all doorways to accommodate at least 810 mm total open width. (This is the width from the edge of the actual door to the opposite frame.)

At least one accessible bathroom should be considered. This is a personal choice as to which bathroom should be made accessible as it is preferable to have the accessible one as close to the bedroom being used by the person with the mobility impairment.

This may mean that any guests who may need this facility may have to have access through that person’s bedroom.

The following items need to be considered too be installed according to accessible regulations: toilet height and placement; basin access to be able get knees under it; step-free shower; bath height and space or transfer; grab rails, lighting and heating.

Accessible bedrooms should have sufficient space around the bed which should have be at the correct height for the person using it (average height 500 mm from the finished floor).

Cupboards should be accessible (no baseboard so that a person using a device can move into the cupboard for better reach ranges). Drawers instead of shelves allow the items to be brought forward for easier reach.

Carpeting needs to be limited to those with a very small pile. Loose mats are not advised as these can cause a tripping hazard.

Hopefully this has given you a taste of what you can do to create a beautiful home that is user- friendly by all. It is always advisable to consult an access specialist to assist with any changes.

Ensure that your contractor knows how to install the items according to the National Building regulations as it will be a waste of cash if it is incorrectly installed. It will not be correctly used if incorrectly installed.

If you are thinking of selling your own adapted home please list the items that are accessible as this will assist those looking for accessibility. If you are looking for accessible homes to purchase, research the properties and contact the agents with your specific needs, so that they can assist to the best of their abilities.

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Mandy Latimore
By Mandy Latimore Consultant
Mandy Latimore is a consultant in the disability sector in the fields of travel and access. email: mandy@noveltravel.co.za.
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