Living With Polio

House Remodeling

If you are fortunate enough to be building or remodeling your home, you can include all the modifications you need to accommodate your physical condition. Most of us need to live with what we already have, but we can make alterations which do not require large expenditures. Adapting your environment can be simpler than you think. For some adaptations I’ve given two versions – both the easily doable idea and suggestions for more extensive remodeling. The following ideas are designed to stimulate your thinking and help you design ways to make your surroundings comfortable and energy-efficient.

Floors can be beautiful and safe. Wood, cork, non-slip vinyl, or low-pile carpeting all work well. Steer clear of ceramic tile floors which become hazardous when wet. Avoid plush carpeting with thick padding which is difficult for wheelchair users and can jeopardize your balance because you sink slightly with each step. Commercial grade carpeting stands up to wheelchair use the best. I found that cut berber carpeting has a plush look but is low enough to not be a challenge to my balance. It also rebounds quickly from the weight of my scooter.

Doors and doorways often limit our freedom in moving around the home. Doorways should be minimum 32 inches wide and preferably 36 inches in width. Narrow doors, thresholds, doorknobs and locks can all create barriers to independence. Pocket doors and bi-fold doors waste less floor space than swinging doors.

  • For doorways that are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair or walker, install Swing-Clear hinges, which enlarge the doorway by 2 inches. If this is still a tight squeeze and the doorway is in danger of being marred by the mobility device, cover the doorway with a piece of very thin plastic laminate to prevent scratches.
  • A threshold higher than 1/2″ is a potential tripping hazard and a barrier for wheelchair users. Be aware of thresholds and differences in floor levels when you enter a room. If the threshold cannot be removed, install a gently sloping beveled ramp up to the edge on each side of the threshold.
  • For individuals with limited hand strength, there are doorknob extensions, twisters, and turners which give extra leverage for opening interior doors. Some styles require no grip at all. Fabricated from plastic, steel or rubber, some need to be installed while others slip onto the knob easily without any modifications. A heavy rubber band at least 1/2″ wide provides traction for turning the doorknob. A good use for those rubber bands from broccoli! Lever-type handles eliminate the need to grip for turning and pulling doors open. Attach a strap, belt, or dog leash to the door handles to make closing behind you easier.
  • Opening the front door will be easier if you install a lever handle in place of the traditional knob. These are available at hardware and building supply houses.
  • Consider an automatic door opener for the door you enter most often, such as from the garage to the house. A remote control door lock, like your remote control car lock, is helpful when your hands are full or you have crutches or canes. Have a package shelf attached to the wall close to the entrance door.
  • If your wheelchair can’t get close enough to a door to peer through a peephole, a product called “The Door Viewer” enables you to identify visitors at the door from up to seven feet away (available from Sammons Preston).

Eliminate stairs from your daily activities. This is probably the single most important modification you can make. When you walk, your entire body weight is borne on the sole of your foot, a very small area. You are putting three times your body weight on each foot during the weight-bearing phase of walking, and going up steps is much more stressful than that.

Some years ago, efficiency experts determined how much energy (in the form of oxygen consumption) was used by healthy individuals in performing various activities. Their results showed that compared to lying still:

  • sitting at rest took 30% more energy
  • walking 2.6 miles per hour took 160% more energy
  • walking downstairs took 372% more energy
  • walking upstairs took 1336% more energy

If going up stairs is this energy-consuming for able-bodied individuals, you can see why people with chronic conditions need to eliminate this activity.

If you live in a two story home, try to relocate your bedroom and living spaces onto the same level. Store frequently used items where they can be retrieved with a minimum of stair climbing and plan your day so you only use the staircase once in the morning and once in the evening.

If finances allow, install a stair glide. Check out the information on ramps if your home has exterior steps.

Consider installing a ramp whenever floor levels change, even for one step. One step may not seem like much but if you always have to step up with your better leg then that leg may eventually get weaker from overuse.

In my former home I had a ramp installed for my step-down den. It provided easy movement back and forth and enabled me to drive my scooter into the den when I needed respite from walking.

The slope of the ramp should be no more than one inch of rise for every 12 inches of length. If the total height of steps is two feet the ramp would need to be twenty- four inches so the person can wheel comfortably. If a wheelchair user has weak arms, a more gradual slope would be needed.

Regardless of the slope, there needs to be a flat area at the top of the ramp where the wheelchair can stop while the person unlocks and opens the door. This area needs to be at least three feet deep if the door opens in and five feet deep if it opens out. If a ramp rises more than thirty inches or changes direction, there should be intermediate landings at least 5 feet long to provide rest areas and adequate turning room.

For safety, a ramp should have low guardrails and handrails on both sides. To prevent slipping, apply indoor-outdoor carpeting, non-skid deck paint, or rolled roofing material. A ramp should be at least 32 inches wide as the average adult size wheelchair is 27 to 29 inches in width.

Portable ramps are available for travelers. They are usually short and only appropriate for heights of nine inches or less.

Electrical outlets. The recommended minimum height for electrical outlets, television cable outlets, and phone outlets is 20 inches above the floor but 44 inches is preferable for easy reaching whether sitting or standing. Three-way light switches enable you to turn lights off and on from more than one location without going back across an area.

Remodelers should consider installing more than one electrical circuit in bedrooms, in case you will need medical equipment later on that draws a lot of power. This means separate circuits, not just additional outlets. Put television cable outlets and telephone outlets in every bedroom, study, and living area. You never know where you may want them later on. In the kitchen place the switches for the sink light, garbage disposer, range vent and light all within easy reach while seated.

Washer and dryer. Hook up your washer and dryer near the bedrooms if possible. Most of the laundry is generated in this area and it doesn’t make sense to transport the loads back and forth to a service porch or garage.

A front-loading washer and dryer (with controls in the front) allow the laundry to be handled easily from a seated position, and should be installed on a platform to make them easier to load, although a top loading washer is preferable for someone who works from a standing position. All front-loading doors should have side hinges rather than dropping downward.

You’ll need a table or counter, about 30″ high, located near the washer and dryer for folding laundry. This can be a built-in feature, a drop-down shelf, or a table on casters.

Garages. Large garages simplify entering and exiting your vehicle. Allow at least 26 foot width for two cars. Any home remodel should include the garage. Allow yourself plenty of space, in height, width, and depth, for any type of transportation options you may need in the future. Allow 9-foot high doors instead of the standard 7-foot in case you will need a full size van with a raised top. A side-loading van will need at least 4 extra feet of width, and a rear-loading van will require 4 extra feet of depth.

Automate your home. Although an automated home may seem like science-fiction fantasy, the technology has been around since the 1970s and is surprisingly affordable. X-10 technology works through the existing AC wiring in your house, no special wiring is required. Simply plug or wire an X10 compatible device into your AC supply and it can communicate with any other X10 device in your house. You can have automatic or remote control of your lights, heating/cooling, audio/video, drapes, door locks, alarm system, pet feeder, and hundreds of other devices.

A Consumer’s Guide to Home Adaptation. Order from Adaptive Environments Center.

AbleData. A Consumer Guide to Accessible Housing. Maintained for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Accessible Homes Foundation, a website specializing in barrier-free environments. facebook page

An Accessible Home of Your Own. Accent Special Publications; Cheever Publishing, Inc.; P.O.B. 700; Bloomington, IL 61702. (309) 378-2961

Building for a Lifetime, the Design and Construction of Fully Accessible Homes by Margaret Wylde, Adrian Baron-Robins and Sam Clark.

Creating Accessible Homes. A checklist to aid persons who are building or remodeling a home. Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service.

Enabling Products Sourcebook 2. National Kitchen and Bath Association

Home Automation Systems, Inc. Offers automatic or remote control of lights, heating/cooling, audio/video and much more. Uses a technology called “X10″ which works through the existing AC wiring in your house. Request a “Smart Home” catalogue from 1-800-762-7846 or go online at

Home Improvement, Remodeling, and Repair from Hometime. Building and remodeling advice and products on ramps, bathrooms, and kitchens.

Home Modification Action Project (The University of Southern California).

Ideas for Making Your Home Accessible. Accent Special Publications. Cheever Publishing, Inc., P.O.B. 700; Bloomington, IL 61702. (309) 378-2961

People with Disabilities. Website of Department of Housing and Urban Development. Includes Fair Housing Laws, General Information, Resources.

Planning for Access: A Guide to Planning and Modifying Your Home. Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. 1-800-444-0120. E-mail:

The Boulevard. Web site with extensive links to companies, products, and services specializing in barrier-free construction.

The Center for Assistive Technology and the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Aging at the State University of New York at Buffalo. (800)-628-2281.

The Center for Universal Design, School of Design, North Carolina State University, P.O. Box 8613, Raleigh, NC 27695. (800) 647-6777. Web site:

The DoAble, Renewable Home. A guide to help adapt your home as your needs change. Order from AARP Fulfillment, 1909 K St., N.W., Dept. GP; Washington, D.C. 20049. Pamphlet D12470. Free.

Universal Design: Home Modification Devices. AARP.

© 1999-2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark

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