Kitchen Design for Independence Back »

Written collaboratively by Leacey E. Brown and Dallas Willman.


Our relationship with food extends beyond the need to eat, the art of preparing and serving food is how we connect with others and pass down family traditions. While many services exists to ensure people with disabilities are able to have nutritious foods, little thought is given to how losing the ability to prepare and serve food to the people we love effects are emotional well-being. What’s more, we tend to equate disability to the inability to prepare food. Kitchen design can either enhance or impede food preparation when facing a physical disability or short-term injury. 

Common Challenges in Kitchens

  • Lack of barrier free design and maneuvering space
  • Cabinet height and depth; counter height and depth (toe-kick clearances absent)
  • Appliance height and control location
  • Built-in microwave location
  • Freezer/refrigerator access
  • Cabinet Door hardware; hinge swings
  • Sink access and control
  • Outlet location
  • Counters that lack heat resistance

I understand the list above is overwhelming. Many of us have a lot to change in our kitchens if we want to achieve our goal of lifelong independence. That’s why it’s important to include universal design at initial construction or to include accessibility when making renovations to our home. Below we will go through the challenges individually and provide potential solutions. Please consult a contractor with expertise in universal design and accessibility for additional tips and strategies to prepare your kitchen for lifelong independence.

Turning Space

While we all love our big kitchen island for extra preparation space, be sure your kitchen has a 60-inch diameter turning space (standard for new construction; may be a concern when remodeling an existing home). This will allow you or a loved one who use a wheel chair or walker to be able to maneuver around the kitchen more comfortably. In addition, doors leading to the kitchen need to be 36 inches clear with lever style hardware.

Additional items to consider: flooring that is non-skid and has zero-threshold, meaning less than ¼ inch difference between adjacent flooring. L and U-shaped kitchen design is best for wheelchair users. The minimal amount of clearance space between counters and the adjacent counter is 36 inches. This allows wheelchair users to circulate on a forward approach. 

The dimension provided above are minimum recommendations. In this universal design video, Dr. Rossetti provides a great demonstration of the practical application of minimum standard.

Shelf Height & Depth

  • Accessing kitchen storage is important. We have several options to ensure we can reach the items we need for preparing and serving food.
  • Full height pantry to allow for both high and low storage
  • Shelves with adjustable height in wall cabinets
  • Reduced height of counter (34 inches) and upper shelves
  • Pull down shelves (Video demonstration)
  • Base cabinets with drawers or shelves that pullout
  • Adjustable height counters (similar to sit-stand desk)

Appliance Height & Control Location

Take a look at the image below. Could you access the stove or oven controls from a seated position?

A solution is to purchase appliances with controls mounted on the front or side. Controls need to be lockable so they are not turned on accidently. See the image below for an example. In addition, the top of the range should not exceed 34 inches above the floor finish. To prevent reaching over burners, staggered burners are recommended.

Ovens should be elevated (wall hung) with the first shelf being level with the counter (34 inches) above finished floor. Ovens with side hinges are an excellent option.

Dishwashers can be hard on the back at any age. One option is to elevate your dishwasher 8 to 10 inches off the finished floor. This helps to reduce bending over. To see several examples, check out these Raised Dishwasher Home Design Photos.

Built-in Microwave Location

Did you notice the location of the microwave in the picture of the stove with the controls located at the back? Above the stove. While common, this placement is not well suited for people use wheel chairs, crutches, or walkers. A better option would be to have a microwave that can be accessed from a seated position. The ideal location is below the countertop; located in either the island or perimeter cabinetry.

Freezer/Refrigerator Access

Traditional refrigerators with the freezer compartment on top are not well suited to meet the needs of people with who use a wheel chair, walker, or crutches. Best is side-by-side, full extension, pull-out shelving refrigerators with bottom freezer. Or under counter refrigerators and freezers – drawer or regular. Fridge doors need to open 160-180 degrees.

Sink Access & Control

Accessing and using the sink can be difficult for people who use crutches, wheelchairs, or walkers. Below are some potential solutions.

  • Knee space under sink for wheelchair access (also known as roll-under or front approach)
  • Side approach is another option, but it can be difficult for the person in the wheelchair
  • Recommended sink height is 34 inches (variable height solutions are available)
  • Pot fillers should be added at the sink or at the range for ease of operation for people with disabilities or short-term injuries
  • Single-lever or touch operated faucets

Other features to promote independence in the kitchen

  • 30-inch by 48-inch area of approach in front of all appliances
  • Variable height counters (adjustable from 28 to 40 inches) Source: Residential Rehabilitation, Remodeling and Universal Design
  • Under cabinet task lighting
  • Lighting in cabinets or drawers
  • Accessible controls for lights, garbage disposal, and vent/hood
  • Accessible electrical outlets (front of counter or side of cabinets)
  • Good color contrast between flooring and counters
  • Heat resistant counter top such as quartz
  • Slip-resistant flooring
  • Barn or pocket doors with lever-style hardware
  • Intercom system
  • Visual and audile smoke detectors – some now use voice instead of high pitch sounds which are difficult for people with hearing loss
  • Hands-free or remote control devices

Plan for Modifications

We understand these renovations are pretty significant. The key is understanding that at some point they will be necessary for ourselves or a loved one. If we remodel or build new with this in mind, we can save ourselves money and time when they do become necessary. As an example, cabinets can be built to be modified – meaning we can have base cabinets at all locations and remove them after developing a disability. 

What’s Next?

Our kitchen is the heart of our home. Incorporating universal design features in it before they are needed accomplishes two things. First, it keeps us independent for a longer period of time. Second, it retains the unique style that reflects who we are as individuals and reduces the risk of our home looking like an institution. Are you looking for additional ways to make your home aging in place ready? Please check out What is needed for aging in place? for additional information.


Additional Readings & References:

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