Remodeling for Wheelchair Access: (Part 4) Kitchens

My brother Miguel celebrated his birthday in Santa Cruz, Calif., soon after he left his job as a tenured sociology professor in Albuquerque. By the time I arrived to help with the party preparations, our mother was busy in the kitchen rolling out dough for the empanadas (Argentine-style turnovers filled with savory delights). After his morning care routine, Miguel wheeled into the kitchen to join the crowd waiting to sample the first batch right out of the oven. The platter was empty in a matter of seconds. Some things never change.

Since Miguel is unable to move his arms due to a spinal cord injury, his assistants or family members normally prepare his meals (and the spreads for large parties). He generally oversees these efforts, but of course, there’s more to the kitchen than cooking. Whether he’s sharing a meal at the kitchen table or searching for the perfect snack, basic access to the kitchen is a must for Miguel. Luckily, the kitchen in his current home was fairly accessible to begin with, so we’ve made only minor modifications that allow him to view the contents of his pantry and refrigerator.

While we only had to change the kitchen slightly to accommodate my brother, people with at least partial use of their hands and arms will find many possible adaptations that make the kitchen more friendly and accessible.

If you’re thinking about remodeling your kitchen, a little extra planning time will go a long way. Start by asking some simple questions: Who will be using the kitchen? Is the wheelchair user the principal cook, or does he or she commonly share the kitchen with other household members? Is this likely to be a permanent home for a gourmet cook, or a temporary one for someone whose idea of a home-cooked meal is microwaved Chinese takeout? The answers to these lifestyle questions, together with a careful assessment of the user’s physical abilities, will form the basis of your plans.

From a construction point of view, the kitchen tends to be the most complex and most expensive room in the house. The typical kitchen requires several electrical circuits to accommodate appliances and includes plumbing and provisions for the venting of odors and disposal of garbage. Cabinetry and special floor and countertop surfaces are also standard kitchen accoutrements. But before we get to the details, remember that, as with any other room in the house, an accessible kitchen has to have a minimum clear floor area 60 inches in diameter to provide turning space for the wheelchair. A larger space will make the kitchen easier to share with other members of the household — or, as in Miguel’s case, his family and party guests. A fully accessible kitchen should also provide working surfaces at appropriate levels and access to the appliances, sink, and storage spaces. Let’s have a closer look.

Work surfaces and cabinets

Standard kitchen counters are 36 inches from the floor, which is too high for a wheelchair user. An accessible kitchen should include at least one work surface that’s between 30 and 32 inches from the floor, depending on the individual. To allow a direct approach, the space beneath it should have no obstructions, be at least 30 inches wide, and provide a minimum knee clearance of 27 inches from the floor. Logical locations for such surfaces are next to cooking appliances and sinks. This lower work surface can be a permanent feature or a height-adjustable countertop, which an engineer can design to be raised or lowered at the touch of a button to accommodate any user. Alternatively, pullout counters or a kitchen table can serve as accessible work surfaces. Some folks use holes cut into the table or counter’s surface to further lower and at the same time stabilize items such as mixing bowls.

If your plans call for a new set of cabinets, try to find a shop familiar with accessible design. Most modern cabinets consist of modular units that can be mixed and matched to fit many configurations. You can often modify these units still further to include the features you need. Even if you have full range of motion in your torso and arms, most wall-mounted kitchen cabinets may be beyond comfortable reach from a seated position. If periodic assistance is available, however, overhead cabinets needn’t be removed or omitted from a new design; they can be used to store infrequently used items or those used by standing members of the household.

To make the best use of space in deep, bottom cabinets, install sliding shelves or baskets; in corner cabinets, put in turntables. If you include in your design a pantry cabinet that allows you to reach everything, you’ll have additional storage readily accessible. If shelves are fixed instead of sliding, they should be limited to a depth of 12 inches. Narrow bottom cabinets with swing-up platforms that accommodate frequently used appliances such as mixers or food processors provide access while saving precious counter space. If you have limited hand use, make sure the door and drawer handles are easy to grasp, or avoid them altogether through the use of push and release magnetic latches. You can also have electrical receptacles and switches mounted on cabinet faces, where they can easily be reached.


Separate cooktop and wall oven configurations offer some clear advantages over the freestanding range. Installed on a low or height-adjustable counter, cooktops are readily accessible and allow a clear view of the food being prepared. While they can be installed directly above a clear space, permitting a forward approach, this increases the risk of serious injury caused by spills. Instead, consider including accessible work surfaces on either or both sides of the cooktop. When choosing a cooktop unit, look for controls that are easy to reach and operate. Some electric models offer smooth glass or ceramic surfaces that are easy to clean and make it safer for sliding pots and pans.

Wall ovens should be installed at a height appropriate to the wheelchair user’s abilities, while allowing enough clearance to manipulate the oven door as well as its controls. Ovens with doors hinged on the side rather than the bottom provide better access. Make sure there is a surface within reach on which hot dishes can be placed after removal from the oven. If a standard, freestanding range must be used, choose one with front controls and avoid models with hard-to-reach bottom broilers.

Microwave ovens can be convenient and safe. If you find a microwave indispensable in your kitchen, make sure you place it at the appropriate level.

If you buy a dishwasher, the ones with individually sliding baskets tend to work best. Look for easy-to-operate controls.

Refrigerators with the freezer section on the side rather than the top are a good choice. Their narrow doors require less clear space to open, and apart from the uppermost shelves, they offer good access to both refrigerator and freezer sections. Models with the freezer on top may prove adequate as long as you can access at least part of the freezer compartment from a seated position. Door-mounted water and ice dispensers may just be too convenient to pass up.

The need for minor appliances, ranging from electric can-openers and toasters to pasta makers and espresso machines, can only be determined by one’s culinary tastes and physical abilities. In general, choose appliances that are stable yet light enough to handle. Appliances that mount below overhead cabinets are extra stable and save counter space.

Sinks and accessories

Sinks should be mounted on low counters and include clear knee space. To prevent injuries, including burns, the sink and all associated pipes must be shielded from the user’s legs with insulating material or a protective cover. Accessible sinks must be shallow; a depth of about six inches allows easy reach while providing the knee clearance necessary for a direct approach. Single-lever faucets are easiest to operate.

To include a garbage disposal, look for wide sinks that incorporate a small, very shallow compartment on one side, keeping the unit below the sink out of the way. Consider other sink accessories such as a retractable spray nozzle, installed separately or included with some of the better faucets. Instant hot-water dispensers eliminate some of the steps and risk involved in preparing hot beverages.

Keeping it simple

By today’s prices, a brand-new, fully equipped, wheelchair-accessible kitchen can easily cost $10,000 to $100,000, depending on how big and complex it is. Like any remodeling project, updating your kitchen can also be disruptive and messy. If these reasons are enough to prevent you from embarking on such a project, here is a way to keep on cooking without the headache.

Microwave or toaster ovens, portable ranges, and electric griddles and kettles can replace big cooking appliances. They can be placed on counters if within reach, or on a long table against a wall. A table of the right height can likewise provide a comfortable work surface. Small portable refrigerators, raised to an accessible level, can replace full-size units if necessary. And storage needs can be met with a simple stand-alone cabinet or open shelves. That covers everything but the kitchen sink, which, due to the plumbing involved, is harder to improvise.

Miguel’s birthday party, by the way, was a big hit. Guests exclaimed over a wall of photos that showed him in, among other incarnations, his long-haired David Bowie phase. The kitchen, filled with inviting smells, was the busiest room in the house.

— Gabriel Wolff is a former biology teacher and lab technician at the University of California at Santa Cruz who specializes in home remodeling.


Martha F. Somers. Spinal Cord Injury: Functional Rehabilitation. Appleton &Lange. Norwalk, Conn: See Chapter 18: Architectural Adaptations.

Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability by Public Accommodations. Federal Register. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. 28 CRF Part 36.

Adaptable Housing: A Technical Manual for Implementing Adaptable Dwelling Unit Specifications. Boston, Mace, &Long,

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