It’s becoming more common for house renovations to be made to allow a disabled member of the family to live at home more comfortably. As medical advances continue people are living longer and not succumbing to diseases and ailments that previously would have ended in premature death or being confined to a residential care centre.
Here we will be looking at the advances in technology and equipment that help people live in a house. Of course it’s difficult to make recommendations for modifications to a house that are going to help every person because there are so many different ways that people can be affected by various conditions.
There are three very broad categories of house renovation that can be helpful to disabled and elderly people:
- Modifications to the fabric of a house to allow easier navigation
- Installation of fixtures and fittings to a house that are more accessible
- Use of technology in a house to make communicating and living easier
The first category includes widening of doorways and possibly removing the doors themselves or switching to sliding doors, installing ramps and other facilities that allow access for wheelchairs and turning space. Then there are shifts in the configuration of a house such as moving a bathroom downstairs, or making the house more open plan.
The second category covers fitments that make things in the house easier to operate, from long handles on taps to full blown accessible bathroom and kitchens; really the sky is the limit once you start looking at what’s available in these areas.
The final category involves technological areas like intercoms and videophone entry systems, now becoming commonplace, through communications devices that can keep someone in touch with a care centre, to more cutting edge solutions where technology can help someone make use of computers to do things for them.
Wheelchair Access in your Renovated Property
One of the most common home renovation projects for disabled people is to make the home accessible for a wheelchair. It’s not rocket science, making it possible for wheelchair users to access a building and move around it, but some properties, particularly older ones, present many problems.
Inclusiveness Becoming More Normal
Of course disability access for new buildings is now enshrined in law but this doesn’t extend to private houses. Although that’s disappointing it does at least mean that people are getting used to the idea of fully accessible buildings and you’ll get fewer odd looks asking a builder to put a ramp in for your front door or widening doorways in the house.
If you’re doing a complete renovation job on a property then doing all these things is a lot easier. And of course, the wheelchair user needs to be involved too, trying things out, giving their opinion on the best solutions to all the different problems.
Knocking down walls to make more open plan areas would obviously make things easier for a wheelchair user but some people don’t like too many open plan areas because noises and smells aren’t contained.
External Ramp for a Wheelchair
Ramps for the outside might cause problems if you are in a conservation area and they will need to be ‘in keeping’ with the area. If the property is listed then you could be in for a real ding-dong with planners as you’ll need to get listed building consent.
It’s worth trying to get access sorted for the front door of a house, or at least the door that most people use, so that wheelchair users don’t have to be shuttled round the back like second class citizens.
Note that ramps should have a flat landing area at the top, in front of the door, so that the wheelchair can stop on a level while the door is opened. You may also need handrails along the ramp for people to pull; against, particularly if the ramp has to be steep.
Recommended gradients for access ramps can be obtained from local authorities, try the planning department first.
Internal Doors in the Property
They will also be able to advise you about doors and doorways. They should be at least 90cm wide, if not a full metre, and doors should have lever handles rather than round door knobs to make them easier to open.
You could have spring catches on all the doors so that they can be pushed open without having to use a handle.
If so, door closers might be useful so that the doors close behind the wheelchair user without having to be pulled shut. If you go for that option, make sure you fit metal bash plates on the doors at wheelchair height!
Other Aspects of Wheelchair Friendly House Design
Wheelchair access isn’t just about widening doorways and putting in ramps though. There are leaflets available from government sources that describe the current recommendations for clearances for all sorts of areas.
Turning circles need to be considered and there will be areas where more than the width of the wheelchair is needed so that people can lift themselves in and out.
Consider a bathroom, for example. As well as the space to get out of the chair there needs to be somewhere for the chair to stand while the owner takes a shower or bath, but within easy reach for when they have finished and need to leave the room.
It’s the same in the lounge too, a wheelchair user might want to sit on the sofa for an evening’s relaxation so the chair will need to be out of the way but close by for when it is required.
See Through Doors Can Help a Wheelchair User
One final point is to consider internal doors with glass panels in them at a lower height than usual. This is so that someone at wheelchair height can see if someone is about to come through a door rather than discover it as they hit them.
Making Improvements to Provide Access to Upper Floors
Stairs form a common access problem for disabled or elderly people so it’s no surprise that a number of domestic solutions have arrived on the markets to service this need.
Different Access Solutions for the Upper Floors of a Home
There are basically three different sorts of mechanical aid that give access to the upper floors of a house without climbing the stairs.
- The first is the stairlift, a chair which runs on tracks up the side of an existing staircase and folds up against the wall when not in use.
- The second is a traditional lift, where a complete box is raised and lowered vertically between floors. Not many homes have the space for one or can afford one, as they are the most expensive option.
- The third access solution is the platform lift, a cross between the two. The mechanism can be either a straight vertical lift or an inclined lift like a stairlift.
The main difference is that there is a flat platform at floor level so that a wheelchair user can roll straight onto it rather than getting off onto a seat.
This has the added advantage that the wheelchair goes upstairs as well as the person in it, so someone who is unable to get around without their chair will now be able to access areas of upper floors as well as the ground floor.
Traditional Lifts in the Home
It’s important to decide on the best access solution early on in the renovation stage.
Lifts aren’t common in houses because of the space problem, but if you would prefer to install a lift, an obvious solution is to completely replace the staircase with it, something that might well fit in with your renovation plans if you are moving or otherwise altering the stairs anyway.
But a staircase often plays a structural role in the house so you will need the advice of a structural engineer about replace the missing strength.
Also you need access space upstairs as well as down; there needs to be space for wheelchairs to get in and out on both levels. Many staircases simply don’t allow the width for a lift, single flight ones in particular.
With a two flight staircase which has a turn on a half-landing, it’s more likely that there’ll be space for a lift.
However, the staircase is often the only access method for getting furniture upstairs, so that needs to be considered if the staircase is to disappear completely.
The vertical platform lift is perhaps a better idea for access to upper floors in a home.
Many of them are some self-supporting and can be installed in a corner of a room to simply go up or down through a hole in the ceiling. Installation is easier as the lift doesn’t need any support.
The difficulties come from finding a corner of a room downstairs which corresponds to a corner in a room upstairs where the person using it actually wants to go.
If you have space to put one in a hall which comes out on a landing and still have room to keep the staircase, then that’s probably the closest to a perfect solution.
Stairlifts – the Popular Solution
Stairlifts are less of an issue all round, but the mechanism does intrude on the staircase to a certain degree. The track is fixed to the wall on one side of the staircase and is custom-made to fit the curves and rises of each staircase.
Stairlifts are quite common now as they are the most cost-effective access solution, with prices starting from just over £1500 for a short, straight staircase. Obviously the more complex the staircase the more expensive the stairlift.
Many companies rely on the buyer measuring the staircase but it is suggested that it might be better if you select one where the company sends someone out to make those measurements.
This might cost more, but it means that if there’s a problem fitting the stairlift then the installation company has nowhere to hide. If you make the measurements it can be blamed on you.
Accessible Bathroom Equipment for Disabled People
If part of the reason for doing a household renovation is to make it easier for a disabled or elderly person to access all areas of the home then plumbing equipment is one of the areas that will need a lot of thought.
There’s a wide variety of equipment that can go into bathrooms and toilets to make them easier for everyone to use.
Try Simple Remedies Before Going for Specialist Equipment
There are quite a few things that can be done without having to buy extra or different equipment, depending on the capabilities of the people in the household.
Bending and reaching for things can often be a problem for disabled or elderly people so one example is raising the height of toilets, perhaps just by building a plinth of bricks or building blocks and cementing it in place. This of course means raising the soil pipe as well so working this into a renovation is the right time to do jobs like this.
You have to work with the people who are going to access the facilities so do test runs before you put anything in place permanently.
You might need to keep a range of heights too, perhaps if there are young children in the house as well, so keeping one toilet at the standard height might be a good idea.
There’s also plenty of inexpensive equipment that can make using the bathroom easier like having long levers on taps. There are also replacement taps that have a very sensitive action; just a quarter of a turn from closed to full on.
These can take a bit of practice to get used to though, even for the able-bodied members of the household.
Bath or Shower?
If you are renovating to improve access for someone who is more profoundly disabled then you will need to look at baths and shower equipment with more access options than the standard offerings. Obviously the size and shape of your bathroom may dictate your options here.
Showers are often easier all round for disabled people, particular if a seat can be incorporated into the shower unit. There’s better access and more flexibility with a shower than a bath, and plastic seats that fold up out of the way when not required are not particularly expensive.
Then of course there are the welcome therapeutic properties of soaking in a hot bath to consider. All in one bath/shower units can help here and many of them aren’t much bigger than a straight bath.
There are also a number of different specialist equipment suppliers that offer lifts and slings that can fit over a conventional bath. This is likely to be cheaper than a replacement bath or shower.
Walk-in Baths Have Excellent Access
A relatively recent arrival on the disabled bathroom products scene is the walk-in bath, which has a door on the side, making it easier for people to get in and out.
Many of these also have a seat which can be lowered at the press of a button, making it easier for people to lie back and then get up again, but this may well need an electrical connection.
This makes installation a little trickier and more expensive, as you’ll have to get an electrician in. That could be an issue if you are trying to do the bulk of the renovation yourself.
If you don’t want to get involved with electricity in the bathroom then you’ll be restricted to a fixed seat or no seat, but then that may be enough for your needs.
If you’re embarking on a renovation project and accessible plumbing equipment is on your list of things to look for then there’s a lot of information available from charities that cater for the particular disabilities concerned.
So don’t be afraid to ask them for leaflets and lists of equipment suppliers, they are there to help.
Accessible Kitchen Equipment
Kitchens are one of the areas in home renovation that have attracted a lot of attention from both manufacturers and installers in terms of improving access.
There’s a lot that can be done simply by ingenious installation of standard fitted kitchen equipment and plenty of custom equipment too.
In terms of the kitchen design, allowing access for wheelchair users is a case of good planning.
Many people are aware that areas of the kitchen worktop need to be lower for wheelchair bound users to access them but something that’s less obvious is the need for space beneath the worktop (and sinks and drainers too) to allow room for the wheelchair when those surfaces are in use.
Access Issues in Kitchens Usually Demands More Space
This causes something of a logistical nightmare as someone who is wheelchair bound or otherwise restricted in movement is unlikely to be able to access shelves and cupboards high up on the wall.
This means that storage has to be closer to the floor, vying for space with this need for leg and chair room.
Of course, if there are able-bodied people in the house too, then they can use the high up storage facilities but there’s then a risk of making the kitchen a divisive place, when the idea is to have equal access for all.
This all means that lots of floor space is required and a household renovation is therefore exactly the right time to create a kitchen that everyone can access.
For food preparation a section of low (or adjustable height) counter top can have a hole cut into it to allow a mixing bowl to be secured at a good working height for someone in a wheelchair.
Make sure there’s space for a chopping board too, and, if possible, fit a shallow drawer under the counter for the knives and other utensils required for cooking.
Use Standard Fittings in New Ways to Provide Easier Access
If you’ve got the space, try and install a shallow sink and drainer in the same lowered run of worktop. This means that everything for preparation and hygiene will all be in the one place, which makes everything a lot easier to access.
Another neat trick is to use the pull-out and lift up shelves that some kitchen manufacturers make for food processors and other kitchen gadgets.
This can provide an additional worktop that can be put out of the way when not required. If installed in the right place and at the right height, it can be used for wheelchair users to slide hot items out of the oven straight on to a work surface. Make sure the shelf is heatproof though.
For storage at floor level, use drawer units rather than cupboards. These give access to all the items at one glance rather than having to bend down and move things at the front to access the things at the back.
If you do go for cupboards, use lazy susans, pull-out trays and wire baskets to make it easier to access the items in them. And with drawers, consider putting two handles on, one at each side, so that wheelchair users can access them from either side.
Access is in the Detail
Details count for a lot too. Consider labelling storage tins and boxes on the top so that they can be read as soon as a drawer is pulled out.
Use U-shaped handles rather than knobs as they are easier to grasp, long-levered taps, store small items on shelves on the insides of cabinet doors and, lag pipes under worktops to avoid burns to legs.
All those little items and more can make the difference between a kitchen that everyone can access and one full of constant niggles.
Utilising Technology to Make Your Home Accessible
There are many products and systems that use technology to aid disabled people and help them to live independent lives. Undertaking a home renovation is an ideal time to install much of this technology, as often it relies on wires around the house and installing those can be disruptive.
Challenges for Using Technology to Enable Access
The use of technology has increased significantly as technical items generally get cheaper over time. Also the number of people who are living with disabilities has gone up, as medical advances continue, so the market has increased, making it more attractive to manufacturers and designers.
But there are still problems with technology for disabled people. The market still isn’t big enough to make these devices and systems, that improve access for all, as cheap as mainstream products.
Designers also face a problem in that there are so many different types of disability so they have to design a range of products rather than one generic one.
This keeps the cost high too, and it’s compounded by the fact that many disabled people are unable to find gainful employment, so money is tight.
Technology for Communicating Need
Communications products for the disabled and elderly are often referred to as ‘telecare’ products. Some are designed to work inside the home, perhaps to request assistance from a live-in carer to a need, or to summon help in an emergency.
There are products that can act as a warning, door detectors or floor mats, that can alert a carer to the fact that a person is on the move. There is a second category that can link up to telephone lines to summon help from central services, either commercial or public.
Installing these systems isn’t particularly difficult as often these days they are wireless, so there’s no need for cabling except to attach to a telephone line if necessary.
But in older properties with thick stone walls, wireless may not be reliable enough and in this case you could be looking at putting wires throughout the house to connect the various technology components together.
Many systems are available commercially and can be found through the local social services, and in fact many of the systems that dial out will be installed by the provider too.
Smart Homes for a Wider Application of Technology
Smart home technology takes that a little further and will almost certainly involve putting a cabled network around the home. There are various different systems and they don’t usually work together, but standards are emerging that mean that it is beginning to be possible to mix and match different manufacturers components.
With smart home concept everything in the home that can be automated, is automated, either by motors or electronics, and controlled by a central computer that’s operated by control panels sited around the home.
This can be anything from the heating to the opening of doors and windows, even cooking and washing facilities.
The control panel can, in some cases, be attached to a wheelchair and integrated into a laptop, so that a wheelchair-bound person can control the home and do computer work using the same device.
Using a Provider to Install Smart Home Technology
Setting up a system like this can be very technically challenging and it might be better to employ a company with experience in the area.
One of the good things is that the technology is not restricted to the disabled market, it’s being used to automate houses to provide centrally controllable entertainment or automated heating and ventilation in eco-homes, so market forces are bringing prices down, albeit slowly.
The other advantage of using a company to install a system such as this is that it will come with a maintenance schedule and guarantee.
This will give you access to upgrades as well as repairs and with the way technology advances it might be worth it for that alone.
Funds to Help Improve your Home for Disabled Access
Renovating a house to make it more suitable for a disabled or elderly member of the family is not a cheap job but there are some grants that you can apply for. Grants aren’t the only solution, it’s also possible to get funds from grant-giving charities and benevolent funds.
Grants from Local Authorities
The main source of grants for improving disabled access, at least in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is the Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG), available from your local authority who are empowered to offer finance to a current maximum of £25,000.
These are assessed on a test of the amount of finance that people need and take household income into account as well as savings.
So the actual amount of any DFG award could be very small, it all depends on circumstances. In Scotland people should apply to their local council’s social services department to fins out what grants might be available.
There are also options to get grants of equipment, rather than finance, from local councils. What’s on offer varies from area to area and although sometimes it will be free, sometimes there will be a charge, but it will be at a heavily subsided rate.
Things like stairlifts and special baths may be available which can be very useful for a renovation
Charities as a Source of Funds and Grants
Once the local authority grants avenue has been exhausted, people who are still short of funds should turn to charities and benevolent funds and trusts. The most likely source of funds is a charity that specialises in the relevant form of disability. It may be that they are not able to help with funds but could provide free or subsidised equipment.
Depending on the charity and whether or not there are people in your area, they may even help with labour, if you are doing the work to provide access yourself.
A team of willing volunteers will turn up to help although it’s a good idea if you can provide some help to the next person in need.
Grants from Benevolent Trusts
Benevolent trusts are somewhat different from charities. They are funds that have been set up to support a particular cause or to be used in a certain area, a village, town or city.
They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but a list can normally be found in a central library which will detail the sort of activity or the area that they will support.
The next step will be to write to each trust to outline what you need the money for and how it would be spent.
Assuming that the spending falls into the correct area for the trust, applicants are likely to then be asked to fill in a form with more details, or perhaps meet the trustees who take care of the fund.
They will then decide whether or not the work is the right cause for their trust to support and award grants accordingly.
VAT Refunds for Disabled Access Renovations
Regardless of where the funds come from to improve disabled access in the home, whether it’s from grants or donations, people should be aware that some of the work is exempt from VAT.
So once all the bills are paid, get onto the local tax and customs office (HMRC) and see if some of them can be claimed back.