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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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 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?
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.