Alice Mae Alexander
Department of Environmental Design

Space for the wheelchair, plus space for turning the chair are the two important factors to consider when planning a new kitchen, remodeling a structure or adapting one being used.

The standard model wheelchair (measurements taken from American Standard specifications) falls within the following limits:

  • Length of chair
    42 inches
  • Width, when open
    25 inches
  • Height of seat from floor
    19-1/2 inches
  • Height of armrest from floor
    29 inches
  • Height of pusher handles (rear) from floor
    36 inches
  • Width, when collapsed
    11 inches

The average turning space required is 60 inches x 60 inches. Actually, a turning space that is longer than it is wide — 63 inches x 56 inches — is more workable and desirable.

In general, the wheelchair-accessible kitchen designs follow conventional ones. Special attention should be given to essential features such as knee space under major work surfaces, lower heights for counters, sinks, cooking units and adjustable shelves in wall cabinets.

The kitchen will probably be used by others in the family who stand to work and who can reach to greater heights without difficulty. So some standard height units should be included.

Individual circumstances and preferences must be taken into account. However the following measurements will provide a starting point for a wheelchair worker:

  • Height of sink and range
    30 to 32 inches
  • Height of mix counter with electric or hand mixer
    27 inches
  • Height of mix counter with recessed bowls
    30 to 32 inches
  • Height of knee clearance (minimum)
    24 inches
  • Width of knee clearance (minimum)
    24 inches
  • Reach to high shelves
    52 to 60 inches

Work centers

The design of the cabinets and counters for the three major work centers in the kitchen — sink, range, and mix (food preparation) — is particularly important for someone working from a seated position. Knee space under counters is the first essential; it should be a minimum of 24 inches wide by 24 inches high.

Each center should be as complete as possible containing adequate storage space for all utensils and supplies related to the work, and with adequate counter space a part of or adjacent to the center. Counters 30 to 32 inches high are recommended, although for certain work, such as mixing and beating, a 27-inch height is desirable.

Sink center

Sink bowls should be shallow with drains at the back to allow for knee space and to prevent burns from hot pipes. Double-bowl, 5-inch-deep sinks are available. Garbage disposal units, an important energy-saving feature, can be fitted to these sinks. The one-hand mixer faucet is easy to manipulate.

Metal angles (metal strips) can be placed along the edges of the open knee space to protect the corners from damage by the wheelchair.

Storage should be provided for small tools used in preparing foods, dish towels, cleaning supplies, the trash container and other equipment and materials used at the sink center.

Drawers are better for below-the-counter storage than shelves because they bring the area's full depth of the base cabinets within easy reach. If shelves must be used, pull outs are essential. Three shallow drawers in the sink counter will provide storage for table silver, vegetable preparation utensils and kitchen linens. Metal pull-out rods below the sink can be used for towels and dish cloths.

Lapboards that pull out provide a variety of work heights for different jobs. For example, a maple lapboard, located between the first and second drawers in the base cabinet, can provide a lower working surface for either chopping or mixing.

File storage directly above the sink is an excellent place for utensils first used at the sink.

Range center

Cooking units, range tops, fry pans, griddles, percolators and other small equipment may be safer than a range of conventional height. They should be placed on a working surface of a comfortable height with open space for knees under the counter. Burners or units should be placed at the front of the counter so they are easy to see and to reach. A separate oven is desirable; adjacent counter space is necessary. The most-used shelf in the oven should be placed at the same height as the counter for easy sliding of hot pans from the oven to the counter. A pull-out board under an oven with top opening, side opening, or French doors is extremely valuable. Functional storage can be planned for the space below the oven.

Mix center

Equipment as well as supplies should be stored at this center. Keeping things within easy reach is the key to efficient operation. It is desirable to have 4 feet of counter space with the 24-inch opening under the counter for the wheelchair. If the counter is 30 to 32 inches high, provide a pull-out board that will clear the arms of the wheelchair. An ideal pull board could hold two recessed removable mixing bowls for easy one-hand use. Pull-out panels, 12 inches wide on each side of the 24-inch-wide knee space, can be fitted with peg board and adjustable shelves for hanging equipment and storage of supplies.

A 27-inch-high counter permits easy use of an electric mixer. A pull-out board would not be needed in this case.

Slant-front wall cabinets provide storage space that is easier to reach than conventional cabinets. The bottom shelf is 5 to 6 inches deep and the top shelf is 9 to 10 inches deep, which makes the face of the cabinets extend over the counters at the top more than at the bottom.

Storage units

Storage facilities in any kitchen should be easily accessible. Keep in mind the principle that stored items should be easy to see, easy to reach and easy to grasp.

Storage of the conventional type over a counter may be difficult to reach. A full-length cupboard, 12 inches deep, with adjustable shelves, permits convenient storage space. If conventional wall cabinets are selected, use adjustable shelves to bring articles within easy reach. Turntables and other devices may be used to make the storage more accessible.

Using tongs to grasp lightweight items stored on high shelves may enable the person to use conventional storage units. Care must be taken that the articles grasped are not breakable or that they will not injure the person should they fall from the tongs.

Drawers with smooth sliding hardware and the correct height afford the best storage for base cabinets. They conserve space and are easy to manipulate. Convenient pulls, or other means of opening drawers, are very important. Recommended heights of drawers for various kinds of supplies are:

  • Silver, small tools, spices
    3 to 4 inches
  • Linens
    3 to 4 inches
  • Saucepans, canned foods
    6 to 7 inches
  • Canisters, large packaged foods
    11 to 12 inches
  • Shallow utensils, stored vertically
    12 to 13 inches

Features to consider when planning a kitchen for wheelchairs include:

  • Doors
    32 to 36 inches wide, easy to open, eliminate door sills, mount kickplates (10 to 12 inches high) on doors to prevent marring of wood by wheelchair.
  • Windows
    Opening mechanism should allow easy operation and cleaning. Height of window sill not to exceed 32 to 36 inches. This enables a person in a wheelchair to see outside.
  • Light switches
    36 inches above floor. Single button type may be easiest to operate.
  • Electrical outlets
    No less than 18 inches high, placed at points of greatest need.
  • Non-skid floors and floor coverings.
  • Easy-care finishes for cabinets and walls that do not mar or show soil.
  • Adequate light in room
    Both natural and artificial, with special illumination at work centers.
  • Wall-mounted telephone and dispensers of various kinds
    48 inches from floor.
  • Wall cabinets
    Easy to reach, with shelves made to hold one row of objects (not to exceed 12 inches in width).
  • Base cabinets
    Drawers, bins, pull-outs, revolving or swing-out shelves to bring contents within easy reach without too much maneuvering.
  • Doors for cabinets
    Sliding or folding for least interference
    magnetic catches.
  • Wheel table or cart
    Stored under the mixing center or other convenient spot can be used for transportation of food from refrigerator to the sink area carrying serving items to and from table, etc. It also provides an extra work surface. Lapboard fitted over arms of wheelchair can serve the same purpose.
  • Midway cabinets
    Shallow storage shelves or bins in the space between the wall cabinet and base cabinet are convenient for wheelchair workers. If they clear the counter by 5 inches or more, full use of the counter top is possible.
  • Toe space
    A 9-inch-high, 6-inch-recessed space in the base cabinets allows wheelchair homemakers to get closer to the counters and will give them added space to maneuver their wheelchairs.
The author is indebted to other home economists working in the area of rehabilitation for some of the ideas presented in this guide.
Publication No. GH5671