Home, Sweet Modified Home

Five practical and affordable DIY tips to make your house more accessible

by Elizabeth Millard on July 14, 2015 - 3:12pm

Quest Summer 2015

From navigating tight bathroom spaces to working your way through a long hallway, homes can present many challenges when it comes to mobility and accessibility for those with neuromuscular disease. 

Making large-scale modifications is always an option, but with the cost of renovations, it’s worth pursuing budget-friendly strategies first, says Amber Ward, occupational therapy coordinator at Carolinas HealthCare System, which houses the MDA/ALS Center at Carolinas Medical Center. 

“You would be surprised at how much you can get done with just a trip to a dollar store or a local hardware store,” she says. “The trick is to think creatively and use inexpensive products for modifications in the home.”

Here are five affordable and creative tactics to consider:

1. Rearrange your kitchen.

Ward notes that people tend to organize a kitchen the way their mothers did, with glasses and plates in upper cupboards, for example, and lightweight plastic containers in lower drawers. But for someone with neuromuscular disease, those should be flipped. “There’s no rule saying you can’t have glasses in a bottom drawer,” she says. “You need to organize things the way they work, not the way you think they should be.” If lower cupboards are deeper and require more stretching to get items near the back, install pullout cabinet organizers.   

2. Create clear boundaries.

One of the top home modifications is to de-clutter every space, adds occupational therapist Susan Bachner. Once that’s done, use a contrasting color of paint or tape along the edges of an area or in a hallway. Many people with physical disabilities have contrast sensitivity, especially in low light or on stairways. By marking each step or entrances to rooms, it will help you orient yourself better and help prevent falls. 

3. Use shelf liner around the house.

Rubberized shelf liner is often inexpensive, and although it’s handy for putting inside shelves and drawers, there are many other uses around the home, Ward says. For example, you can cut out pieces that can be placed in bathtubs and showers to lower risk of slipping, and other pieces can be glued to doorknobs, grab bars, faucets and handrails for better gripping ability. If there are any small sections left over, use them as jar openers.

4. Elevate your seating.

A common difficulty that Ward hears about from people with muscular dystrophy, ALS and other diseases that limit muscle strength and mobility is rising from chairs, beds and couches. But rather than fashioning a system to pull yourself up, consider raising the furniture instead. Budget-friendly and easy to install, risers are often available at hardware stores, or can be easily built from wood pieces. Sometimes even just a few extra inches of height can make a big difference, Ward notes. Another item that benefits from elevation is the toilet, although raising a toilet typically requires either a contractor or some help from a friend or family member, since the toilet must be removed first. However, using a toilet seat riser is a simpler, more affordable way to add several inches of height without needing to remove the toilet itself, and it’s still a great option for those who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues.

5. Invest in handrails and grab bars.

Every stairway should have railings on both sides, but what about hallways and bedrooms? Putting more handrails into areas you use frequently can be very useful for balance, as well as getting in and out of chairs. People tend to use furniture to steady themselves, Ward says, but this can be challenging since those surfaces might not be at the right height and do not necessarily provide a stable base for support. Instead, having grab bars next to the bed, in the bathroom and even in the kitchen can be useful for creating more stability and independence.

Modifying a home will largely be based on the funds required to pay for changes, and a person’s needs and abilities as they relate to fall prevention and maintaining independence, Bachner says, adding, “You want to keep all of these in sync, so that barriers are reduced.”

  • Replace chair and couch cushions with boat cushions; not only are they sturdy and waterproof, but they’re much firmer, which makes it easier to get up after sitting.
  • Get a small rolling cart that can fit easily through doorways; this can be handy for transporting items between rooms. For example, setting the table with items from a cart is simpler than having to make multiple trips that require carrying breakable items.
  • If a shower area is too difficult to navigate, consider a camping shower, which could be set up in a kitchen or even an outdoor area if the weather is warm enough. 
  • Look into smart home apps that let you use your smartphone, iPad or computer to control devices and lighting throughout your home. For instance, you can connect a sensor to hard-to-reach lamps and turn them off by using your smartphone. These apps also allow you to adjust music volume, turn off appliances and even control heat and air conditioning, with just a few clicks.
  • Lowe’s “Accessible Home” page includes relevant products by category type, as well as articles and how-to videos: lowes.com/Accessible-Home/_/N-1z0x54v/pl 
  • The DIY Network offers a vast database of home-modification advice and projects; use keywords to target your search: diynetwork.com 
  • MDA Transitions Center’s Accessible Spaces Gallery showcases home DIY tips from the MDA community. Find inspiration or share your own personal accessibility techniques and designs: transitions.mda.org/spaces 
  • If you’re considering a bigger modification project, AHIA, or Accessible Home Improvement of America, has a network of certified consultants and contractors who specialize in accessible home modification: accesshomeamerica.com 

As you modify your home for more accessibility, don’t forget that some of the same principles and techniques can apply for outdoor spaces, too. For example, occupational therapist Susan Bachner recently built raised-bed garden boxes that allow a person with a form of muscular dystrophy to stand and tend to plants. Guardrails along the box edges provide extra stability. (Raised-bed boxes also can be built for a seated height to accommodate individuals who use wheelchairs.) Outdoor spaces can also benefit from fence railings, contrasting tape to mark edges of walkways, and non-slip material on stone paths. 

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn. 

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