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A Guide To Home Modifications For People With Disabilities

Carey Chesney8-minute read
July 29, 2022

Did you find a house you love but it’s not practical for you and your physical needs? Or maybe you’ve been living in your house for a while but have new physical needs that your home doesn’t meet.

Whatever the reason, it’s important it understand the home modifications you can make so you, your loved ones or future residents can comfortably live in the home for years to come. Let’s take a look at what makes a home accessible and common modifications homeowners make to meet accessibility needs.  

What Makes A Home Accessible?

An accessible home is a home designed or modified to enable independent living for people with disabilities and/or health issues. People living with a disability have different needs to ensure a home is accessible to them. Most homes require at least some modifications to achieve this.

The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) has a list of what home modifications should consist of, such as:

  • Accessibility
  • Adaptability
  • Universal design
  • Visibility

With these parameters in mind, read on to learn 10 ways homeowners can make their homes more accessible for people with disabilities. In addition, we will cover five cost-effective ways to make your home more accessible. 

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10 Ways To Make Accessible Home Modifications

There are as many ways to make your home accessible as there are types of disabilities that need modifications. A few key home improvements to consider are eliminating or modifying your entryway steps, replacing steps with ramps, installing a stair lift, ensuring there is access to a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, upgrading your bathroom and removing barriers and doorknobs, ensuring adequate lighting, creating wider doorways and hallways, removing rugs and liners, and lowering the placement of furniture, appliances and countertops.

Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these home improvements, including how they will help make your home more accessible.

Eliminate Or Modify The Entryway Steps

Sometimes, the first barrier is getting into the house at all. If you have steps to your front door, see if there’s an alternate entry that a person with a wheelchair can use, such as through the garage or back door. Otherwise, you’ll need to create a ramp or other way that a wheelchair can roll into the home.

Replace Steps With Ramps

Ramps allow for wheelchairs to glide easily into the home. Steps, not so much. Even if wheelchair access isn’t necessary for your home, ramps are easier to walk up than stairs for people with certain disabilities.

Install A Stair Lift

Consider installing a stair lift when working to make your home more accessible. For many people with disabilities, stairs can be daunting. For some, it even represents a barrier that can’t be overcome.

Ensure There’s Access To A Bathroom And Bedroom On The First Floor

In today’s modern two-story houses, often most of the actual “living” areas – that is, where you sleep and use the bathroom – are upstairs. If you have someone in your home with a disability, you may want to add in a bathroom and bedroom on the main floor to eliminate the need for stairs.

Upgrade The Bathroom And Remove Bathroom Barriers

Upgrading your bathroom and removing bathroom barriers is one of the single best ways to make your home more accessible. Bathrooms present many safety hazards for people with disabilities like wet or slick tile, and harsh, unforgiving surfaces when people fall.

Improvements like installing a walk-in tub and updating toilets for increased accessibility can go a long way. You can also add a roll-in shower – or one that otherwise has a low lip that doesn’t require a huge step to enter – along with another set of graspable handles.

Remove Doorknobs

Some doorknobs can be hard to use for those who have difficulty gripping them. One solution for this is to replace them with push/pull bars, press lever handles, or even automatic doors. 

Ensure There Is Adequate Lighting

Low lighting can create a hazard for anyone in a home, but particularly someone who is disabled. Make sure that you have strong overhead lights that can be turned on with just the flip of a light switch – or even better, with voice-activated commands.

Create Wider Doorways And Hallways

Expanding your doorways and hallways may be necessary to make your home wheelchair accessible; ideally doorways should be at least 36 inches wide. While you’re at it, check your flooring to ensure that it is smooth to allow for easier traversing; replace carpet with linoleum, wood or tile.

Remove Rugs And Liners

Removing rugs is a smart solution, as they can be dangerous, contributing to slips and falls for someone with limited mobility. Get rid of your rugs or hall liners so they don’t “grab” wheelchairs or walkers. This will go a long way toward making your home more accessible and safe.

Lower The Placement Of Furniture, Appliances And Countertops

As you move about the house, anticipate what areas might be challenging for a wheelchair to maneuver, whether it’s a coffee table that blocks a path or a cupboard that’s too high to be easily reached. Determine what things are OK to leave as-is with some changes – perhaps you only move some of the kitchen items to lower, more accessible shelves – and which need to be addressed with retrofits or other modifications.

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5 Cost-Effective Accessibility Home Improvements

If some of the solutions provided so far seem expensive, don't worry! Accessibility modification doesn’t necessarily need to bust your budget. You can make your home more accessible with cost-effective home improvement projects as well.

Things like accessible flooring, level handles, handrails and grab bars, roll under shelving and smart home technology can be done at a pretty modest cost.

Let’s take a look at each of these cost-effective home improvements that will help make your home more accessible.

Accessible Flooring

Using durable and smooth flooring can really help people with disabilities move throughout your home safely. Vinyl and laminate flooring are affordable options that also wear well.

Lever Handles

Twisting doorknobs can be challenging for individuals with arthritis or other mobility problems. Installing lever-style handles can add a big boost to their ability to be independent.

Handrails And Grab Bars

Handrails and grab bars are relatively easy to install near the toilet and shower (assuming you don’t need to reinforce the wall) and can make your bathroom safer and easier to maneuver around independently.

Handrails and grab bars are great for other parts of your home as well. Anywhere that requires movement or activity, especially getting out of a wheelchair, is a good place to consider putting in these safety features.

Roll-Under Shelving

If you’re in a wheelchair, you might find yourself knocking into cupboards or bathroom sinks. Replacing solid cupboards with open shelving or a roll-under vanity or pedestal sink in the bathroom can help you get closer to the action.

Smart Home Technology

Controlling your lights, thermostat and appliances with voice-activated systems makes it far easier for someone with dexterity issues to have the ambience they need. Strategically placed video cameras can help you feel safer and make it easier to know where others are in the house or if you have visitors. Find stand-alone devices that meet your particular needs or work with a provider to integrate your whole house.

While retrofitting your home to be barrier-free can be a challenge, it’s hard to put a price on the independence and sense of well-being you will gain from staying in place. Finding out everything you can and exploring all options related to assistive technology will go a long way.

Are There Grants For Home Improvements?

Yes, financial assistance programs are available for home improvements that improve accessibility. Here are a few places to look:

  • Housing grant for disabled veterans: If you are a veteran, you might be eligible for one of two different types of grants. The Specially Adapted Housing Grant helps a veteran construct a specially adapted home or remodel an existing home to make it suitable. A Special Housing Adaptation Grant does the same but extends the assistance to a family member in whose home you are living.
  • Rural housing repair loans and grants program: Low-income homeowners who are age 62 or older may be eligible for loans of up to $20,000 and grants of up to $7,500. Note that for a loan of more than $7,500, a mortgage is required.
  • Self-sufficiency grant from ModestNeeds.org: This private grant doesn’t have an income requirement but is designed to help those in need so they don’t have to spend their remaining income on retrofits. Recipients must be employed and able to document their source of income.
  • The Individual Adaptive Equipment Grant from the Travis Roy Foundation: Another private funding source, these grants are offered to those who suffer a sudden spinal cord injury, rather than those suffering paralysis as the result of a health condition. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and include a request for one specific item in their application.
  • Additionally, there are financing programs available, such as the Section 203(k) loan program from the Federal Housing Administration, which allows home buyers and homeowners to finance the purchase or refinancing of a home, along with its corresponding rehabilitation needs in one mortgage.

For more specific programs in your own state or community, visit The National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, which has a directory that may help you identify additional sources of aid for disability modifications.

Your local government can potentially provide additional resources, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development offers helpful information on its website. If you don't qualify for assistance, consider taking out a cash-out refinance or another of the many different types of home improvement loans to help pay for and fund your home's necessary improvements.

FAQs: Home Modifications For People With Disabilities

Hopefully you now have a good understanding about making your home more accessible for people with disabilities. To further your knowledge on this issue, let’s answer a few frequently asked questions.

How do I make my home ADA-compliant?

Review the Americans with Disability Act on the Department of Urban Housing and Development if you want to make sure your home is ADA-compliant. Keep in mind, though, you can still make some of the improvements we have outlined here even if you don’t achieve full ADA-compliance.  

Does Medicaid or Medicare cover home modifications?

If you can get assistance, that’s fantastic. But even if you have to pay for the home modifications out of pocket, remember it still might be more cost-effective to complete them and stay in your home than have to move to another potentially more expensive home or to an assisted living facility.

The Bottom Line

Controlling your lights, thermostat and appliances with voice-activated systems makes it far easier for someone with dexterity issues to have the ambience they need. Strategically placed video cameras can help you feel safer and make it easier to know where others are in the house or if you have visitors. Find standalone devices that meet your particular needs or work with a provider to integrate your whole house.

Finding out everything you can and exploring all options related to modifying your home for disabilities ensures you’ll be able to seek and reap the benefits of any available funding.

If grants and other funding sources don’t fit your needs, you might want to consider a cash-out refinance. A cash-out refinance is one of the most popular ways to fund home upgrades among homeowners who have built up home equity, because they’ll typically be paying a much lower interest rate than they would with a personal loan. If grants won’t work for you or won’t be sufficient to cover all of your renovations, and you have equity in your home, start the process to get a cash-out-refinance today.

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Carey Chesney

Carey Chesney brings a wealth of residential and commercial real estate experience to readers as a Realtor® and as a former Marketing Executive in the fields of Health Care, Finance and Wellness. Carey is based in Ann Arbor and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he majored in English, and Eastern Michigan University, where he recieved his Masters in Integrated Marketing & Communications.