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Home Access: Entrances and Doors


The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 7 of Life on Wheels: For the Active Wheelchair User, by Gary Karp, copyright 1999, published by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. To order, or get more information about Gary's book, call (800) 998-9938. Permission is granted to print and distribute this excerpt for noncommercial use as long as the above source is included. The information in this article is meant to educate and should not be used as an alternative for professional medical care.

A number of building features impact the ease of access to your home. Doors, flooring, windows, electricity, and other features need to be considered for the ways in which they obstruct your independence or can be better designed.

Entrance

Getting in the door is the first order of business. Ideally you would prefer to go in the front door like everyone else, rather than being relegated to the back door, and have more than one entry. The primary entrance is ideally close to the car, and allows you to bring things into and out of the home as easily as possible. In an apartment complex this might mean convenient access to an elevator from a parking garage.

A paved, reasonably level, smooth surface is best for approaches to doors, patios, decks, gardens, and parking areas. Widths of five feet are considered ideal. Consider whether the entrance should be protected with an overhang. Chair riders often need a little extra time to get a door open, so will be exposed to the weather. An overhang also suggests the need for additional lighting, so you can find your keys, see the pavement when approaching the door, and see the doorknob well enough to operate it. A small shelf next to the door gives you a place to put down a bag of groceries while unlocking the door.

If you can afford more extensive changes to a private home, you might regrade the driveway to bring it up to the level of the house. This way, you take advantage of the car to get up the slope, so you won't have to push or drive your wheelchair uphill.

Ramps

A ramp is a common and generally affordable solution. Some people might simply lay down a piece of wood so a chair rider can be hauled up it in his chair, but that might not achieve independent--or safe--access.

The usual slope recommended for ramps is 1:12, which means that for every one inch of rise there are twelve inches of horizontal run. This angle can be too steep for some chair riders, as well as for some people who walk, or in winter or rainy conditions. A gentler slope of 1:20 is likely to be usable by most people. The following figure shows the difference between a 1:12 and a 1:20 slope.

Preferred and maximum ramp slopes
Preferred and maximum ramp slopes

The angle you choose also depends on space. The less the angle of slope, the more distance the ramp will run. If there isn't much room, more slope might be the only approach. Some riders do have the strength to climb slopes even greater than 1:12. But no matter how strong you are, when you have a bag of groceries in your lap, you can't climb as easily since you can't involve your upper body as well. And, of course, there is a point at which too much slope will be likely to cause the wheelchair to tip back altogether.

The ramp does not have to run in a continuous rise, but can "switch back," making a turn and coming back in the opposite direction. Or you can use a dog-leg design that makes one ninety-degree turn--an approach that can be used to run part of an exterior ramp along the side of the house, minimizing its visual impact. Such designs need a level landing at the turn. All ramps must have a level landing of five feet for every thirty inches of rise.

Tenenbaum emphasizes the need for a landing before a doorway:

The main thing is to have a landing at the top. Make sure you have room to be out of the way of the door when it swings open. People sometimes mistakenly run the slope right up to the door, with no curb or handrail.

Ramps of concrete and asphalt are ideal surfaces that require little maintenance, but for rises of more than one foot, these materials will usually not be practical. Too much concrete or asphalt can crack under its own weight. Wood or metal grating is used for ramp surfaces. If using metal grating, be certain that openings are not large enough to catch a crutch tip or a shoe heel. Take drainage into account so the surface will stay dry and free of puddles.

Handrails are an important safety element of a ramp, just as for a stairway, and are usually advisable even with a gentle slope. Provide handrails on both sides. Some chair riders prefer to pull themselves up the ramp by grabbing the handrails, which is sometimes easier than pushing the wheels. Rails should not be more than one and a half inches in diameter so that they can be gripped reliably. A round shape is best. Handrails should not be too close to the wall--one and a half inches is recommended. Handrails should extend one foot beyond the bottom and top of the ramp so it is possible to have support as you approach the rise and until you reach secure, level ground. For exterior ramps, provide for nighttime lighting.

A ramp has a strong visual impact. Take into account the design of your home, and use compatible materials, colors, and patterns. You want to avoid communicating, "A disabled person lives here and we had to make our home ugly because of it." Rather, you want the design to communicate, "Our home is a place that welcomes everybody." Landscaping can better integrate the ramp into the design of the home.

A poorly designed and aggressively installed ramp can indeed affect the value of your home. Ron Mace observed:

The ramp is the cheapest thing you can do, but it has the disadvantage of being very obvious. It devalues the home in the view of realtors. They usually discount the house, because they feel that in order to put it on the market, you're going to have to spend more money to take the ramp off. It's something that nobody else will want.

You don't want to build a ramp in a way that will feed into these attitudes. Regrading is desirable, if possible, or you could install the ramp in a way that it is easily removed but still structurally sound. Alternatively, perhaps the ramp could go inside a garage; this can be the most convenient place if you will be driving and typically enter the home through the garage door. Putting the ramp in a garage also protects the ramp--and the person using it--from weather.

Temporary and portable ramps

Temporary ramps are often acquired or built. In some public settings, a removable ramp might just get left in place rather than building something more permanent. Inspect such a temporary ramp for stability.

I fell out of my wheelchair on a ramp at a funeral home. The ramp was removable and when my front wheels hit it the whole ramp moved. I fell and the electric wheelchair came down on top of me. I broke my elbow and scraped my knees.

Portable ramps in various lengths are available for sale. Some are individual tracks that you set a proper distance apart to accommodate wheel position. This design makes them lighter overall and easier to transport, but either track can shift independently out of position. Other types are full width, some of which fold up to reduce their bulk for transporting. Check what weight these ramps can handle. If you are a large person in a power chair equipped with a recline system and a ventilator, you might find yourself having an experience similar to this man with his new, portable metal ramp:

We made it into the house all right, but on the way out the left ramp collapsed, nearly tipping me and my chair over, and almost ruining my wife's and my attendant's backs. When I phoned the dealer, the first thing they said was, "Were you in the wheelchair when the ramp collapsed?" I said, "Yes, I was." They replied, "I'm afraid your warranty is void then. If you look in the owner's manual you'll see that they are not recommended for use while the wheelchair is occupied." I looked and sure enough that's what it says.

Interior ramps

Ramping inside the house is more problematic, since not as much space is available. There is a tendency to keep the ramp from taking up too much precious floor space by making it shorter and steeper. But the steeper the ramp, the more likely you are to lose control going down, get stuck on your footrests at the bottom, or not have the strength to push yourself up it. If you are in peak condition, you might have no trouble, but as you age--or when you become ill or tired--such a ramp could become more of an obstacle and risk. In general, building next to a wall is advised because it allows you to put a handrail on at least one side of the ramp.

The Ramp Project

In 1991, the Minnesota Center of Independent Living (MCIL) developed the Ramp Project, which has helped people build quality, appropriate exterior ramps for very low cost. Their program is based on the use of volunteers who pitch in to help construct and move ramps. MCIL reports that many ramps have been reused in different locations thanks to their modular approach, which was reviewed and modified by a professional engineer.

The plans for these ramps--with specific structural details--are available from MCIL for a modest price. They offer a booklet that includes planning guidelines, and also discusses issues such as permit approval and how to order materials. MCIL has developed a modular ramp system that requires no footings. That means it is not necessary to dig down into the earth to set posts in stone or concrete below the frost line--the usual construction approach. Their design is stable and does not have problems with shifting.

MCIL conducts a rental program that allows people to pay off the cost of materials and then keep the ramp for as long as they need it. They have even managed to arrange for insurance to cover volunteers during construction.

Lifts

Lifts can be used as a way to get to an outside entry or up interior stairs. They have some disadvantages, but can be a solution when nothing else works.

Many homes have a front porch with perhaps four or five steps, a driveway next to the house, and small front yard. There just is not space for a ramp. A mechanical lift would be the solution. Ron Mace said:

I recommend lifts when there isn't enough land or room to put up a ramp. Besides, ramps in icy locations are not much good half the year. In winter settings, even if there's space, it can make sense to do a lift anyway.

A lift can cost as much, if not more, than constructing a ramp. Being mechanical, it can break down. A lift is not attractive. Although landscaping can conceal the lift, and you can locate it in the least conspicuous place you can manage, lifts are bulky, and it is more difficult to integrate one into the appearance of your home. An exception is the Everhard lift, which is enclosed in a concrete pit underground.

It is important to take care of a lift: keep it lubricated, observe weight limits, and have the dealer make regularly scheduled maintenance checks. Lifts need more maintenance in winter environments.

For interior stairs, a vertical platform lift could be a solution for a short run of four or five steps, but not for a full flight of stairs. Installation of a full elevator is a much more elaborate and expensive undertaking, but is an option if you have the resources and space. Elevators do not have to look commercial or institutional. For instance, the elevator door could be designed so it looks like a normal, interior door.

Most stairway lifts consist of an individual seat. Depending on the stairway, a lift could also be a platform that could accommodate a wheelchair. But most full stairways are not wide enough to accommodate a platform lift. Platforms also have a harder time with curves and turning a corner at a landing.

The seat lift can be a good solution, but you need to have good balance and the ability to make transfers in order to be stable and safe using it. Most seat lifts include a footrest platform, and the seat flips up out of the way for people who walk the stairs. All come equipped with a seat belt. Seat lifts usually include an obstacle detection system that will stop the motor if it encounters resistance. These lifts can follow a curved path or turn corners at landings, although this option makes them more expensive. A second, inexpensive wheelchair could be kept upstairs, since you would spend less time using it and it would not have to hold up to rigorous daily use, but perhaps be used only for the bathroom and bedroom.

Doors

Doors are the most likely bottleneck to free movement through the home. A number of conditions could make a door an obstacle. A doorway should:

  • Have sufficient maneuvering space at the approach
  • Be wide enough for a wheelchair to pass easily
  • Have hardware that can be easily gripped or turned
  • Require little force to open
  • Have a low threshold

A door without one of these qualities could rob you of independence, and threaten your safety if you need to use the door in an emergency.

When you are thinking of how to modify your home for maximum access, think of the functions of a door. Doors provide safety, privacy, acoustic control, climate control, and aesthetics. The function of safety should not be compromised. However, you can weigh other priorities. Any door that does not provide these functions might not be needed at all. If a door only gets closed when you sweep behind it, why not remove it altogether?

Door width

A door must be wide enough for you to fit through. Wider doorways also protect the door frame from damage and allow you to carry an occasional wide package on your lap. Bathroom doors are typically the most narrow in the house. Bedroom doors can be narrow or oriented to the hallway in such a way that you can't wheel straight through. While making the door frame wider is not always an option, there are other possibilities to give you more clearance, such as using a different kind of hinge that takes the door out of the way or using a pocket door.

Wider doors do not add to the cost of a new building. There are many benefits, according to Mace:

When you use wider doors, there's nothing different about them. They're just doors. Buy a wider door and you're putting in less wall. The wall actually costs more than the door. It's a direct tradeoff that doesn't cost anything. It doesn't look any different from any other door. I've never heard anybody complain about the look of a wider door. It's a lot easier on moving day. It increases circulation and air flow, and increases views into the room. Deaf people get better sight lines.

Door types

Many people report that sliding glass doors are the easiest to operate, but they sometimes have difficulty getting over the metal channels at floor level. Sliding doors are best installed in a recess in the floor to make the surface flush, assuming that water infiltration would not be a problem. Sloped thresholds--or "mini-ramps"--can also be installed to help wheels over the frame. Some sliding door designs use lower-profile channels.

A pocket door slides into and out of the cavity of the wall, so it takes up no space from the door frame. The door rides on easily gliding tracks that require little exertion to operate the door. When the door is open and fully tucked into the wall, there is usually a small hook on its edge, which you grab with your fingertip to pull the door in order to close it. This can be a dexterity problem for some people. A D-pull handle solves this, but then will limit the ability of the pocket door to fully recess into the wall. If enough clear space is not left to pass through the doorway, you can cut a notch in the wall to recess the D-pull so that the door can open all the way (see following figure).

Detail of recessed D-pull on pocket door
Detail of recessed D-pull on pocket door

Installing a pocket door in a wall is a significant construction task, and some people complain of difficulty with maintenance. If properly built, the door should glide easily and stay on the track. A less costly and simpler approach is to install a surface-mounted pocket door. Such a door can be attractively installed on the outside of the wall, with proper trim and hardware, and without the problem of having to cut a notch for a D-pull. The only drawback is the loss of some wall space (see following figure).

A surface-mounted pocket door
A surface-mounted pocket door

Closets typically use double-leaf or folding doors. These door types don't impose themselves as far into the room when they are opened. Two smaller doors can provide better access to a closet space. Folding doors are often inexpensive and not of high quality. They tend to jam, fall off their tracks, or require more dexterity to operate.

Door hardware

Door hardware has a large effect on independence. A door with difficult-to-use hardware is also more likely to be damaged as it becomes necessary to push, kick, or use the wheelchair itself to get through it. Lever handles and D-pulls are the easiest to use. A hook latch or handle with a thumb latch require dexterity and strength.

Lever handles should be used on both sides of entry doors. Contractors or installers might think that a person with a disability will only open the door from the inside, but be assisted when coming from the outside, which of course, may not be true. A second door pull, placed closer to the hinges, can help you close a door you've passed through. The latch can be too far to reach once you are through, so the additional D-pull allows you to close the door without strain.

Lock hardware also can be inaccessible. Many people are unable to put a key in a lock, grasp it with their fingers, and twist it to turn the lock. Some people tend to install many locks for an increased sense of security, but locks can serve to imprison and endanger someone who has difficulty operating them.

Keyless locks are now commonly available; a keypad is used to enter a code with gentle pressure from a fingertip. Generally, you set the code, so you can change it occasionally for security reasons. You also can never lose your keys--though you can forget the code. Make sure the control is installed at a reachable height. Some of these products come as an integrated system that includes a doorbell, mailing slots, or intercom.

Often a small bathroom is rendered inaccessible simply because the door swings into the room. The door can't be closed because there is not room to wheel far enough into the room to clear the door. This can be solved by reversing the swing of the door. You can remove the door and put the hinges on the other side of the frame so that the door swings out instead.

The thickness of a standard-hung door occupies one or two inches of the space of the door frame when it is opened. There is a replacement hinge available which pivots so that the thickness of the door is effectively removed from the passageway when it is opened. These hinges are easily installed and inexpensive. The following figure shows how this type of hinge works.

An offset door hinge
An offset door hinge

You may be able to remove a bathroom door altogether. If privacy is an issue after removing a door, hanging a curtain in the doorway can often solve the problem.

I removed a bathroom door in one place where I lived. It was never a problem because the bathroom was accessed through the bedroom, so I could simply close the bedroom door for privacy. In another apartment where I lived, I simply never closed the bathroom door because the room itself was too small for the door to close while I was inside. If I had guests I simply told them to stay in the living room, and I turned up the music!

Another common obstacle is a screen or storm door at the front door of a house. Having two exterior doors can be solved with automatic door closers or by enclosing the doorway area with a porch. Then you can deal with each door separately.

How easy is it to open the exterior door? Most doors in a home do not have a closer, which applies some spring resistance to the door when you open it. Apartment buildings, however, will likely have closers on the door to the apartment, and certainly on the door at the street entrance. The spring tension needs to be adjusted so it is not difficult for you to open and then pass through comfortably. There might be conflict with building management who want to keep the spring tension tighter at the street for security reasons. But it is management's responsibility to properly maintain the door to close securely without requiring greater spring tension to slam it closed.


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