Coping with Everyday Hazards: Adapting a Home for the Handicapped

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A little effort can pay big dividends in convenience for a family member who is elderly or one who uses a walker or wheelchair. Special hinges and doorknobs, for example, make it easier for a person in a wheelchair to pass through a doorway, while a kick plate prevents wheelchair footrests or walkers from scuffing the door (below). In the bathroom, a variety of modifications can improve safety and accessibility.

Access from the Outdoors: A ramp transforms steps into a gentle incline for a wheelchair. Ramps and landings are adaptable to almost any entrance. For ex ample, use a landing between two ramp sections to turn a corner or to double back to save space or reach a high doorway.

The ramp’s slope must not exceed 1 inch of rise for every foot of length. At the door to the house, build a landing that is at least 6 feet long, and offset it a few inches to ward the knob side of the door. Doing so gives more room for opening the door. The ideal width for both ramp and landing is 3½ feet, wide enough for a wheelchair yet narrow enough for the person in the chair to grasp the railings.

Dealing with a Sidewalk: If a ramp’s route is occupied wholly or in part by a concrete walk, you can let a few of the 4-by-4 posts that sup port it rest on the concrete; reinforce such posts by nailing 2-by-4 braces between them and adjacent posts.

Where most of the posts coincide with the sidewalk you must either widen the ramp or fix the posts to the walk with metal framing connectors that are secured by masonry anchors.


  • Tape measure
  • Electronic stud finder
  • Plumb line
  • Center punch
  • Electric drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Drill bits (masonry, twist)
  • Posthole digger
  • Pick-axe
  • Circular saw
  • Hammer
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Water or line level


  • Grab bars
  • Wood screws (1½ x 3”)
  • Machine screws and posts
  • Kick plate
  • Lever-type door handle
  • Masking tape
  • Toggle bolts (3/16”)
  • Silicone caulk
  • String
  • Stakes
  • Prepackaged concrete
  • Pressure-treated lumber
  • Lag screws and washers (1/2” x 3½”)
  • Gravel
  • Galvanized nails (3½”)
  • Pressure-treated plywood (3/4”)
  • Marine deck paint

SAFETY TIPS: Protect your eyes with goggles while hammering, drilling, or sawing, and wear earplugs to mitigate the effects of the noise. Goggles are also advisable when using a pickax, to avoid injury from rock splinters. When cutting pressure-treated lumber, don a dust mask, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling the wood.

Helpful additions to a door. Mount a grab bar 30 inches above the floor on the side of the door that swings against the door- frame. On a hollow-core door, fasten the bar with machine screws and screw posts running through the door (photograph). A metal or plastic kick plate can be fastened to the door’s bottom—for a hollow-core door, use anchors made for the purpose. To make the latch easier to open, replace the knob with a lever handle. Substituting standard hinges with the swing-clear variety allows the hinged edge of a door to move aside as the door is opened, effectively widening the doorway.

An accessible bathroom. Grab bars installed on tub and shower walls help prevent falls; for the toilet, buy a raised seat with support bars. A seat in the bathtub and a hand-held shower with a flexible hose mounted on a sliding bar simplify bathing. Tilt a wall mirror downward slightly by resting it on a strip of wood fastened to the wall and fitted with mirror clips, then adjust the length of the picture wire suspending the mirror. Replace a vanity with a sink that a wheelchair can roll under; be sure to insulate the hot-water pipe beneath it. Lever faucet handles, which are easy to grip, can be substituted for regular faucet handles.

A closet in reach of a wheelchair. Move the closet pole to a level about 3½ feet above the floor and install a shelf about 4 feet high and no more than 16 inches deep. Another, higher shelf converts the area above the lower shelf into storage space for an ambulatory person.

Grab Bars for Shower and Bath

1. Positioning the bar. The grab bar shown here is designed so that each flange is secured by two 3-inch screws driven into a stud and by a toggle bolt next to the stud. (In new construction, double the studs in the unfinished wall and secure the bar with three screws in each stud.)

• On the wall above the tile, locate the studs using an electronic stud finder, then drop a plumb line from the center of each stud to the places you intend to anchor the bar.

• At those points, mark the width of the studs with masking tape and position the bar so that two of the holes in each flange lie on the tape.

• Mark all six flange-hole positions with a pencil.

2. Fastening the bar.

• Tap each pencil mark with a center punch or an awl to break the slick tile glaze, then drill through the tile at the holes.

Use a 1/2-inch masonry bit for the two toggle-bolt holes; for the wood screws, use a masonry bit slightly larger than the diameter of the screws.

• Drill pilot holes in the studs, then remove the masking tape from the wall.

• Insert a 1/16-inch toggle bolt into its hole on one of the bar’s flanges, then fill the inside of the flange with silicone caulk.

• Push the toggle into its hole in the wall, then insert 3-inch wood screws into the remaining flange holes.

• Fit the bar to the wall and drive the screws in until they hold the bar loosely in place.

• Repeat with the second flange, then tighten the screws and toggle bolts and caulk around both flanges.

A Ramp for a Wheelchair

1. Laying out the ramp.

• As a guide for postholes, stretch two string lines perpendicular to the house—one line as close as possible to the hinged side of the door, the other 49 inches away on the opposite side of the steps.

• Inside the string lines on either side of the door, dig postholes 3½ feet deep and 1 foot wide.

• Dig the next set of holes 6 feet from the house. Make them 2 feet wide to hold two posts each. One supports the end of the 6-foot landing; the top of the ramp rests on the other.

• Dig the rest of the holes for single posts, spacing them evenly along the string lines. Place them no more than 8 feet apart.

• Pour 6 inches of concrete into each hole and let it cure for 24 hours.

• While a helper holds the posts plumb, alternately shovel and tamp earth into the holes, leaving unfilled the last foot of the two sets of holes farthest from the house.

2. Trenching for the ramp end.

• For the ramp to begin at ground level, excavate the pattern of trenches shown in the inset to partly bury the far end of the ramp framework.

• Dig trenches 4 inches wide starting just inside the end posts at a depth of 10 inches and sloping toward the house 1 inch per foot.

• Join these trenches with one dug 6 inches deep between the end posts and another 4 inches deep, 2 feet nearer the house.

• Pour 2 inches of gravel into the bottoms of the trenches.

3. Installing cross braces.

• With - by 3 lag screws and washers, secure two 2-by-4 braces between the four landing posts. Position the tops of the braces 8¼-inches below the door threshold. If steps obstruct the brace nearer the house, screw 2-by-4 blocks inside the posts instead of cross braces.

• To support the top of the ramp, fasten a brace between the ramp posts ¼-inch lower than the landing brace.

• Using a water level or a string and a line level, mark the ramp posts at the height of the top of the ramp cross brace.

• For each foot of distance between posts, measure down 1 inch from the mark and draw another mark across the posts.

• Fasten braces on all but the last two sets of posts—position braces at the marks on the house side of the posts and ¼-inch lower on the opposite sides of the posts.

• On the next-to-last set of posts, screw 2-by-4 blocks inside the posts like the blocks next to the steps, but angled to match the slope of the ramp.

4. Assembling the platform frames.

• For the landing platform, cut 2-by-8 stringers 6 feet long and join them with 2-by-4 joists 39 inches long, spaced 2 feet apart.

• Set the landing frame on its braces and nail it to all four posts with 3 1/2-inch galvanized nails.

• For each ramp section, set a 2-by-8 stringer on its braces. Mark the upper end along the post (inset), and cut it along the angled line.

• Return the stringer to the braces so that the cut end touches the end of the landing stringer, then mark the upper and lower edges of the ramp stringer at the midpoint of the next ramp post. Cut between the marks and use the stringer as a template for a second stringer.

• Omitting end joists, nail 2-by-4 joists every 2 feet between the stringers.

• Construct the other ramp sections in the same manner, but for the last section of the ramp, cut the stringers flush with the last posts and install an end joist there. Use a 2-by-3 or 2-by-2 if a 2-by-4 joist will not clear a sidewalk when the ramp is in place.

• Position the ramp sections on the braces, and adjust the gravel in the trenches to maintain the correct slope.

• Nail the stringers to the posts, then toenail the remaining end joists to the stringers and nail them together.

• Tamp earth around the posts and fill the trenches with gravel.

5. Installing the decking and rails.

• Deck the platforms with 3/4-inch pressure- treated plywood. Make the joints fall on the joists, and leave a 1/8-inch expansion gap at each joint.

• Nail 2-by-4 top rails to the posts 36 inches above the ramp.

• Trim the posts at the tops of the rails, but sloped so the tops will shed water (inset).

• Nail two more 2-by-4 rails, parallel to the top rails and spaced evenly between the top rails and the ramp.

• At a height convenient to the wheel chair user, fasten a 1½-inch, round hand rail to the posts, securing the handrail brackets with 1 1/4-inch wood screws.

• Add a lever-type handle to the door. If you have a screen door, remove the automatic closer.

• Allow the ramp to weather for 6 months, then coat the plywood with marine deck paint containing pumice; leave the rest of the wood unpainted.

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Next: Essential Pool Safety

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