14 Ways to Make Your Kitchen More Safe and Accessible

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
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If a house is a machine for living, an occasional system update is necessary. Accessibility experts weigh in on how to maximize safety and function—for all ages and abilities—in the kitchen.

When the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) became law on July 26, 1990, it was a watershed moment that brought regulations to public spaces which may seem second nature today. Think about curb cuts on sidewalks: Originally designed for wheelchair users, these ramps are just as helpful for those with baby strollers or bicycles. More than 25 years later, however, this all-inclusive approach to design has yet to be regulated in private spaces, and residential building standards are often still based on an imagined user that’s able bodied and right-handed.

LAYOUT

The ADA states the minimum clearance for wheelchair accessibility is 32 inches wide. To improve flow, Soheil Nakhshab of Nakhshab Development & Design prefers a distance of 48 inches between the kitchen cabinets and the island (1).

LIGHTING

LED lights are long-lasting and easy on the eyes. In addition to task lighting above work stations, install lights in storage spaces to spotlight hard-to-see areas.

STORAGE

“You want daily-use items at waist-height,” says architect Karen Braitmayer, who recommends rolling cabinets (2) and pull-down shelves (3). Rotating lazy susan trays (4) and full-extension slide shelving also give easier access to deeper storage spaces. Child-safety locks on cabinets keep contents secure (5).

DRAWERS

Lever-style door handles and wide drawer pulls (6) are easier to grasp. Nakhshab also suggests a touch system “where you push the door and it pops open.”

COOKTOP

Induction cooktops (7), which conduct heat only when in contact with a magnetic cooking vessel, are safer for homes with children, as well as for adults who may forget to shut off the burners. Braitmayer likes burners set side-by-side with controls at the front.

APPLIANCES

Drawer-style appliances and side-opening doors can be game changers. “Imagine if you have a bad back,” says architect Robert Kahn. “The side-opening oven (8) is an ADA design that benefits the general population.” Light signals, which can be clearly seen from a distance, can also complement or replace audible alerts like buzzers.

SINK

Wheelchair users require clearance below the sink (9). Covering exposed pipes with insulating wrap can prevent burns or abrasions, says Braitmayer. Lever-style fixtures (10) are easier to grip than twist knobs, and motion-sensor technology gives users hands-free control.

WORK SURFACES

Countertops installed at varying levels (11) offer easy-to-use work spaces, regardless of the user’s height. Rails installed along the perimeter (12) offer extra support.

FLOOR

Surfaces like cork and rubber are comfortable, provide extra traction, and are smooth for wheelchairs plus, they hide nicks and scuffs.

The rise of multigenerational households—which have doubled in the United States since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center—and increasing interest in "aging in place" means more and more homeowners are thinking about safety and accessibility. These concerns are imperative in the kitchen and bathroom, where the body is often most active and at its most vulnerable. In tackling the topic, we reached out to designers and architects who specialize in universal design to share their tips for creating kitchens and bathrooms that proactively address potential challenges for both ends of the age and mobility spectrums. The good news is that with thoughtful planning and foresight, we can not only mitigate hazards but also remove barriers to create safe, functional environments. And with one in five Americans projected to be 65 or older by 2030, that’s not just good design; it’s good sense.