Building Barrier-Free Kitchens

In recent years enormous progress has been achieved in the design and creation of barrier free environments in both commercial buildings and public housing. For individuals with restricted
mobility, hearing or vision, the physical environment can either facilitate or reduce their independence. But in a barrier free surrounding, a person with a disability is allowed to live more independently within their home and enjoy greater access to public buildings and even participate in physical activities. Rooms with barrier free designs, especially kitchens, not only assist those with disabilities, but aid even the elderly and other individuals whose physical attributes restrict them from experiencing easy access to kitchens and other living quarters.

Fortunately, there is a vast number of high-tech and cutting edge companies like Home Depot, Lowes, Inc., Barrier-Free Environments and the National Association of Home Builders, to name just a few, involved nationwide in the design and manufacture of barrier free kitchens and other facilities for the disabled. And while every space in a barrier free home is vitally important to the disabled homeowner or resident, the focus here will be on barrier free kitchens and what is required in their design and construction before comtemplating contracting or purchasing a new or old kitchen.

First off, we know that the average kitchen, no matter how well designed, has numerous impediments that make it difficult for use by anyone with a physical disability. Creatiing a kitchen barrier free requires specific planning and design features that are different from the average remodeling or retrofitting project. When designing barrier free kitchens, four vital issues need to be considered:

1. Safety: which includes non-slip floor surfaces, lighting, and non-protruding, rounded-off corner surfaces;

2. Mobility: is there sufficient space to manoeuvre a stroller or wheelchair?

3. Accessibility: can the kitchen be easily accessed from one or more adjoining rooms and/or hallways, or are there steps or other barriers to impede access; and

4. Function: are the appliances, counter tops, cabinets, sinks and fixture facilities able to be used by a person with a disability?

Generally speaking, wheelchair access requires wider door openings — 36 inches minimum, with 42 inches to 48 inches preferred — as well as greater clearance between all cabinets. Grab bars may also be necessary for additional support, and these should be near appliances and primary work areas. Of course, grab bar designs need to be discussed with the contractor before work can begin, so that support blocking can be added in the walls and other partitions.
The primary access consideration is that hallways and doorways need to be at least 1200mm wide to allow sufficient space to enter the kitchen.

Light fixtures and power switches should be located where a wheelchair user can reach them, at least 1m from the floor. Consideration should be given to using rocker or touch switches which are easier to turn on and off. The kitchen should also have benches (with rounded off corners) which are around 850mm from the floor. Providing a continuous bench between preparation area, microwave, stove and other appliances will assist with the safe handling of hot food.

Cabinet access can be established by using cabinets 2 inches lower than standard height. The toe-kick space under cabinets also needs to be higher — 6 inches instead of the standard 4 — to allow the wheelchair to positioned closer to both cabinets and countertops. Sink cabinets and cooktop areas should be designed so a wheelchair can roll all the way under them. This is achieved by using doors that open out and then slide back into grooves on the sides of the
cabinet, such as those on an entertainment center; or the doors of cabinets can be left off to provide easy, continual access. Drapes or vertical blinds can be used here instead of doors to cover the cabinet openings.

Appliances and their locatoin also are important to a barrier free kitchen. Most experts suggest that appliances be electrical to eliminate having to reach over an open flame and to avoid the
danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. For anyone with an impaired sense of smell, electric appliances will eliminate the danger of being unable to detect a gas leak. Appliances with controls positioned in the front are best for simple access. For persons with impaired vision, there are appliances that come with Braille lettering as well as knobs and push-button controls provided in various sizes and dimensions to assist those who experience difficulty using
conventional ones.

Ovens with doors hinged on one side, lower table-top stoves and side-by-side refrigerators with freezers are far more accessable to wheelchair users especially when it is necessary to reach the lower shelves in these appliances. Another innovative device that can be installed to facilitate accessing shelves in cabinets and appliances, are carousel shelves and shelves mounted on smooth rollers which make it easier to reach objects stored on the back part of the shelf. Such carousel shelves are also handy to use inside the refrigerator for storing small items.

It is best to remember that the issue of safety should first be addressed when designing a barrier free kitchen. And such safety issues should specifically relate to or answer the individual needs and requirements of the disabled person in question. Therefore, an experienced contractor or designer will viisit the disabled person at his current dwelling to learn firsthand what unique design features should be installed to meet these specific needs and requirements.

When complete accessibility is established, mobility is no longer a problem for the disabled person who must use a wheelchair or stroller. Electrical and gas-free designed appliances, non-slip and adhesive floors, easy to reach fixtures and cabinets, and wide enough entrances and surface spaces are of course major concerns for a barrier free kitchen. And while appliances, counter tops, cabinets, floors, and sink and fixture facilities are all crucial to designing and constructing a barrier free kitchen, those with disabilities (and their families) first need to know where to go whom to contact before design and/or remodeling concerns and costs become a consideration.

A good place to start is with the family doctor or an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists, along with real estate contractors and designers can be found under both local and State listings in the phone book or by contacting one or more of the many sources listed at the conclusion of this article. On the Internet a search for “barrier free kitchens” via any of the major search engines will provide an almost inexhausible list of local and regional companies actively involved in the business of designing and manufacturing barrier free rooms and kitchens.

For now and more than ever across the United States and Canada, real estate planners and contractors, architects, appliance manufacturers, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers and others in the construction industry are working and innovating at high speed to design, construct and retrofit better barrier free rooms and other access facilities for both public housing and commerical real estate.

Ever since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and the notable aging of the United States population an awareness for facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities has become more than just a social or political concern. Barrier free environments benefit everyone, and their increase in construction has been an economic boon to thousands of communities across the nation.

Specifically, the design of barrier free kitchens in homes for the disabled and the elderly has provided both dignity and livelihood to these citizens, and moreover has provided a reciprocal windfall in both jobs and improved economies for local housing commuities and the construction industry alike. No longer does the disabled or elderly person have to endure limited access and restricted mobility at home or in public. Today, the answer to greater access and almost unlimited mobility is only a phone call or email away!

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