‘Really good design should allow people to be as independent as possible’
- Credit: wallsandfloors.co.uk
North London designer offers tips and considerations for retrofitting your home with accessible design.
As a tall person (I stand at 185 centimetres), I often stoop when cutting up vegetables or end up with a crick in my neck after washing the dishes - the fact that my flat was built with the ‘average’ person in mind is frequently annoying and mildly uncomfortable.
But for people with disabilities, that most homes are designed for the ‘average’ person can prohibit them from carrying out simple tasks such as grabbing a spoon or turning a light on, and from living in comfort and ease.
Smart, inclusive design however, can enable people with disabilities to live the best life they can, explains north London interior designer Audrey Whelan of Audrey Whelan Design.
“Really good design should allow people to be as independent as possible,” she says. “If, due to the extent of the disability, a person can’t be fully independent, it should then let them carry out the tasks they can do.”
Design should be based around how people actually do things, Audrey goes on to say, adding: “Unfortunately for people with disabilities, that’s not always how it happens – it’s an afterthought in a lot of places.”
Period homes in particular can be problematic for people who have disabilities, so here, Audrey outlines some key considerations when retrofitting an older property with accessible design.
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Kitchens are difficult because the dimensions of units are based on the average person standing, and benchtops are at a height and depth which accommodates larger appliances such as the oven and washing machine. So that’s a height of 90 centimetres and a depth of 60cm, which is tricky for wheelchair users.
“You could do a lot of tasks at the table, but that might not be a long-term solution – you want to have separate surfaces for separate things,” says Audrey.
“A wheelchair should be able to slide under a worksurface, like at a table, so lower the worksurface and don’t have storage underneath.”
If you create a worksurface for food prepping that isn’t over a large appliance, there is no reason it needs to be 60cm deep, says Audrey. “Think how far you would have to lean into the wall – if you can’t fully extend, maybe you won’t be able to flick a switch.
“Consider creating a food prep area that is 40cm deep, where you keep the kettle and toaster at the edge.”
You can also lower and relocate electrical sockets for appliances for easier access.
If there are multiple people in the household, whose needs differ, you’re going to need to compromise, says Audrey.
This could mean the benchtop has sections that are lowered, while other sections remain higher up.
“A family member can use the worktops placed over the larger appliances and use storage placed higher up,” says Audrey.
For kitchen systems that have adjustable worktop heights, try Swedish company Granberg.
One of the big issues in the bathroom is the difficulty of manoeuvring a wheelchair in the room, says Audrey.
Keep underneath the basin clear for wheels - store towels and toiletries in a cupboard or basket elsewhere in the room.
If the bathroom is too small for a wheelchair, or you can’t get up the stairs, think about bringing the bathroom downstairs.
Another issue is getting in and out of the bath. A way around this is to have a walk-in shower, without the raised tray in the shower recess, so there are no trip hazards for wheels or unsteady feet.
Expanding on this idea, make the bathroom a wet room, with tiles over the whole floor which are on a slight incline around the drain hole to encourage the water to flow the right way. This could give you a bit more room, in case you need assistance in the bathroom.
Install a shower seat or keep a stool in the bathroom to use while showering.
Visual contrasts, particularly around entryways, are important for people who have impaired vision. “You must have contrast around doorways and steps so people can see those areas and navigate potential hazards or eliminate them,” says Audrey.
Changing the colour around a light switch or plug will help it stand out against a white wall too, and there are lots of creative ways to bring visual contrast into the home.
Dutch designer Aurore Brard’s See-eat-through tableware range can be enjoyed by everyone. Using a coloured bar, the glasses make water easier to see when pouring, and the plates have a coloured relief ring so that the user can feel the position of their inner edge.
Different textures for different surfaces or areas can help people navigate a more profound disability, or enable the person to carry out a finicky aspect of life, such as knowing which tray in the washing machine to pour detergent in, or organising the cutlery drawer in the kitchen.
While accessible design should enable people with different abilities use the space together, it also should offer solutions that grow with us as we get older.
“Many people put accessible bathrooms in as an emergency or when they need it,” says Audrey, “but it could be good to think about being more open minded. At any age, if you’re putting in a new bathroom in a home you see yourself in longer term, think about the space and the future.
“You’ll also be in a position where you can accommodate elderly parents when they stay - they can get in the front door and use the toilet facilities,” she adds. “It’s something we take for granted that can stop someone from being in that property.”
It’s true, a lot of disability and mobility equipment looks medical, sterile and like sick people should use it.
Bearing in mind how good design can enhance quality of life, the emotional impact of having this kind of equipment in your home – one of the ultimate expressions of self – should not be underestimated.
“Yes, these products need to be robust, but you’re in your home, not in a medical setting,” says Audrey, “and that’s because you’re deemed not to need to live in a medical environment.
“Look at what these products are trying to do, and think about how you can get the look and feel you want, but get the functionality you need at the same time.”
While you might have to look hard for stylish aides, a few designers are making the step from medical equipment to disability aides you want to have in your home.
This includes design studio Pearson Lloyd which created the Access Flow X, a sleek stairlift that has prioritised comfort, aesthetics and the user experience.
Italian designer Nicola Golfari’s lifetools collection is a range of clean-lined bathroom aids that could be worked into various schemes.
Lastly, it’s also important to maintain a sense of balance within any one room.
As many functional items might be placed low down, think about adding ornamental things on the walls so the room doesn’t feel bottom heavy.
“You can still have storage and decoration higher up,” says Audrey. “Fill the walls with large prints or hanging plants, or shelves with decorative objects and mirrors so that it is a room that has been considered and is whole.”