Informed Consumer's Guide to Accessible Housing

January 1995


For most people, a home is more than a building: it is a state of mind, an expression of personality, the one place where it is possible simply to be.  The types of homes in which people live reflect their tastes and priorities. Deciding to change that home, whether through remodeling or relocation, is a major decision. Finding the right house or apartment requires attention to a myriad of details: price range, location, aesthetics, overall floor space, the number of bedrooms, and more. People with disabilities face the same considerations, but as important as they are, they are overshadowed by the need for housing to be accessible: housing that enables people with disabilities to live their lives as independently as possible.

If a house is inadequate for the needs of the people living in it, it never quite becomes a home. For people with disabilities, a dwelling must be fully accessible to become a home. The purpose of the Informed Consumer Guide to Accessible Housing is to examine what accessible housing is, to discuss the types of products available to achieve accessibility, and to offer resources to assist in this endeavor.

For more information, see our Resource Center on Accessible Housing.

What Is Accessible Housing?

Whether or not a home is accessible depends upon the nature and extent of one's disability. As a practical matter, an accessible home is one which enables an individual to do what he or she needs and desires to do as independently as possible. For some, access may be as simple as adding grab bars and a tub seat in the bathroom. For wheelchair users, access may require ramping entrances, widening doorways, lowering counters, adding lever or loop-style hardware to doors and drawers, and modifying storage areas.

Individuals with sensory disabilities also require accessible housing, although their needs are different from those of people with mobility disabilities.  Individuals with hearing disabilities require visual adaptations for such items as the telephone ringer, the doorbell, and smoke alarms. People who are blind may require tactile marking of changes in floor level and stair edges and braille markings on appliances and controls. People with low vision may be accommodated with large print markings and displays, contrasting colors to distinguish changes in level or transition from one area to another, proper lighting, and reduced glare from lighting and windows.

Because the requirements of accessibility vary so widely, several terms have become widely used. Accessible design generally refers to houses or other dwellings that meet specific requirements for accessibility. These requirements are found in state, local and model building codes, and regulations such as the Fair Housing Amendments of 1988, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standards A117.1-1986, and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). These laws dictate standards dimensions and characteristics for such features as door widths, clear space for wheelchair mobility, audible and visual signals, grab bars, switch and outlet height, and more. The accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulate the accessibility of public buildings and facilities.

Adaptable design allows some features of a dwelling to be changed to meet the needs of a person with a disability. Essential design elements such as wider doorways and halls and barrier-free entrances are included as integral features, while provisions are made to allow other features to be added as needed. To qualify as "adaptable," it must be possible for changes to be made quickly without the use of skilled labor and without changing the inherent structure or materials. Adaptable design allows the house or apartment to meet the specific needs of the user, while maintaining the appearance of the dwelling until more obvious accessibility features are needed. For instance, bathroom walls may be designed with additional supports to allow for the installation of grab bars in the future. Cabinets under sinks can be designed to be removable, allowing the storage space to be provided until such time as the knee space is required by someone using a wheelchair. Similarly, closet rods and counter tops can be installed on adjustable glides, allowing them to be positioned for the needs of the user. Criteria for adaptable housing are included in the ANSI standards and UFAS.

Universal design addresses the need for access by creating designs usable by all people, whether or not they are disabled. This is accomplished by designing wider halls and doors, barrier-free entrances, elevated electrical outlets, lowered switches, adjustable closet rods and shelves, adjustable counters, touch switches, and other features as inherent elements in the building. This type of design makes the home usable by all family members, and recognizes that human abilities change over the life span.

Access and Rental: The Fair Housing Act Amendments

It is not necessary to own a house in order to obtain accessible housing. The Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), which became effective on March 12, 1989, extended the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to cover housing for people with disabilities. Under the FHAA, it is illegal to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of a dwelling, to refuse to process an offer, or to refuse a legitimate offer on the basis of an applicant's disability.  It is also illegal to use differing applications or criteria for persons with and without disabilities or to segregate persons with disabilities to specific units or areas. Further, the Amendments render it unlawful to inquire as to whether the buyer or renter has a disability and as to the severity of the disability. These prohibitions apply to most housing options, including multi-family buildings, condominiums, cooperatives, and mobile homes. However, the FHAA does not apply to the sale or rental of single-family homes unless the owner owns more than three such homes at the same time and the sale or rental is conducted without the use of a real estate broker, agent, or salesperson. The Amendments also do not apply to multi-family dwellings of four or fewer units if the owner occupies one of those units as his or her place of residence.

Further, the Fair Housing Amendments set out design and construction guidelines for multi-family residences begun or occupied for the first time after March 13, 1991. All units in a multi-family building of four or more units equipped with at least one elevator and ground-floor units in buildings of four or more units without elevators are required to be accessible. All such buildings must have at least one entrance on an accessible route (unless prohibited by terrain), have doors into and within all units wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, have an accessible route in and through all dwelling units, have accessible switches and controls, provide reinforcement of bathroom walls for installation of grab bars, and have all public and common areas accessible.

Within all housing units, the FHAA requires that the landlord or rental agent not refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, and services required to enable a tenant with a disability to occupy and use a housing unit. Further, the law requires that the renter be allowed to make reasonable modifications to the dwelling at his or her expense to accommodate a disability. The landlord has the right to require that such modifications be accomplished in a professional manner, that the tenant acquire all necessary permits, and that the interior premises be restored to their original state upon termination of occupancy if such restoration can be readily accomplished and if the accommodations may interfere with a future tenant's use or enjoyment of the unit. For instance, the landlord may require that grab bars be removed and walls repaired, but not that the supportive blocking behind the walls be removed. Similarly, it would be considered unreasonable to constrain the tenant to restore doorways to their original width once they had been widened to accommodate a wheelchair. It is also considered unnecessary to restore exterior modifications because necessary modifications do not restrict future tenants' use of the dwelling.

Achieving Accessibility

While achieving accessibility may mean finding a new apartment or designing and building a single-family home to the specifications that meet the needs of a person with a specific disability, it is often possible to adapt or modify current and existing housing using various assistive technologies.

Hearing Disabilities

Although often overlooked as a population in need of housing adaptations, people who are deaf or hard of hearing require modifications in areas where audible signals are utilized. The most familiar adaptive device for people who are deaf are text telephones (also known as TT, TTY, or TDD); these devices enable people who are deaf or have communication disabilities to converse on the telephone using a keyboard and visual display. For those with less severe hearing disabilities, amplified handsets may suffice. However, access is also required for other systems in the home: Smoke alarms, security system alarms, doorbells, telephone ringers, and even knocks on doors should be converted to visual signals in order for people with hearing disabilities to fully and safely enjoy their homes.

Some signal systems are multi-purpose units, using microphones and transmitters to cause connected lights to flash or a bed or pillow vibrator to activate in response to doorbells and chimes, telephone ringers, burglar alarms, and door knockers. Some units are also designed to detect the sound of a crying baby. Most of these types of systems are equipped with adjustable sensitivity levels in order for ordinary sound and activity to be screened out. Still other systems are designed for specific purposes: interfaces connected to standard burglar alarms can cause lights to flash, and smoke alarms may provide both audible and visual warnings. Both permanent and portable systems are available.

Visual Disabilities

Accessible housing for people with visual disabilities may, in large measure, be achieved with relatively minor modifications. For example, clear travel paths in hallways and through rooms frequently can be achieved simply by rearranging furnishings. Furniture placement may also be used to facilitate establishing a route of travel from one room to another.

Safe travel from one room to another, or from one level to another, is also facilitated by the use of tactile warnings. Tactile warning strips may be used to mark abrupt changes in floor level, the edges of steps, and the transition from one area to another. For those with low vision, similar results may be achieved using contrasting colors or tape markers on surfaces to indicate changes. In addition, door thresholds should be flush with the floor or fitted with small beveled ramps to eliminate tripping hazards.

Lighting and environmental controls also play a large role in making a home accessible to people with low vision. Lighting should be bright and at consistent levels throughout the home, but care should be taken to eliminate as much glare and reflection as possible. Lighting systems that sense people in a room, automatically turning lights on when someone enters a room and turning lights off when the room is unoccupied, are an option in lighting control. Computerized environmental control systems are also available, allowing lights, televisions, stereos, heating and cooling systems, security systems, etc. to be controlled from a computer keyboard, remote control units, switches, or via voice command.

"Low tech" solutions to environmental access are offered as well. Light switches can be marked using braille labeling tape or large print labels to indicate "on" and "off" positions. Using switches with definite on and off positions rather than rocker switches is also helpful. In addition, thermostats with tactile or large print markings and braille and large print appliance control overlays assist in making a home more accessible to those with visual disabilities.

Physical and Mobility Disabilities

Adaptations such as the door sill ramps, environmental control units, and proper lighting mentioned above are also beneficial to individuals with mobility and other physical disabilities, but further accessibility measures are often required for walker and wheelchair users, as well as those whose disabilities affect the use of their hands.

Doors and Entrances

For persons with mobility disabilities requiring the use of wheelchairs and/or walkers, accessibility barriers frequently begin outside the home. The presence of even one or two steps can make entry impossible. Depending upon the severity of the incline, several options are available to overcome such barriers. For curb-height obstacles and small steps, several manufacturers offer a variety of wheelchair ramps, frequently made of aluminum or fiberglass, designed for temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent applications. For longer, steeper inclines, it may be necessary to construct a wooden or concrete ramp. Ramps should be at least 36 inches wide and have a maximum incline of 1:12 (12 inches of length for every 1 inch in rise). Exterior ramps in climates where ice and snow are common should have a more gradual incline, preferably 1:20.  In those instances where the ramp has a rise of more than 30 inches, a landing platform should be constructed half way up. Additional safety requirements include handrails on both sides and a non-slip surface.

In cases where ramping proves impractical due to terrain or where entries are too high to be accommodated, such as those above a walk-out basement or on a deck level, platform lifts and enclosed residential elevators provide an alternative. Models are offered to meet a variety of installation requirements, and are available with such features as powered doors, internal lighting, emergency systems, and custom controls and cabs. (These devices are also options in providing indoor access in multi-level dwellings).

Once access is gained to the dwelling, the next barrier is frequently narrow doorways. In order to accommodate most wheelchairs and walkers, doorways should be a minimum of 32 inches wide to provide sufficient space for the wheelchair or walker width and allow ample hand clearance. In homes where moving walls to widen doorways is not an option, additional width may be gained by removing doors or installing pocket doors which slide into the wall when not in use. Another option is the use of offset hinges which allow the door to swing clear of the opening and provide up to two inches of additional space in the doorway. Also, wherever possible, small rooms should be fitted with doors and hinges that open outward to prevent the door from being blocked from the inside in case of emergency.

Door knobs and locks are another major consideration in accessibility. Standard round door knobs and other types of handles which require grasping, twisting, or pressure are often unmanageable for those who are unable to use their hands or who have diminished strength and grasping ability. Ideally, standard mortised lock and knob sets should be replaced with lever-style handles.  In those instances where knob and lock replacement is not possible, several manufacturers offer lever handles that fit over the existing knob.  Some of these devices are portable, allowing them to be moved from room to room or used when traveling.

Security is another consideration in knob and lock selection. Push-button locks which disengage when the door is opened from the inside are among the most accessible for people with disabilities, but may not provide adequate security. Some options include slide bolts, remote control locks, electronic keypad security systems, and in some instances, push-button padlocks.

Hallways, Baths, and Kitchens

Adequate space is of paramount concern in hallways, kitchens, and bathrooms.  Hallways should be a minimum of 36 inches wide, and in hallways where turning around is required, a five-foot radius of clear space should be provided. That same radius of maneuvering room should also be available in kitchens and bathrooms to allow an individual to turn around and have full access to appliances and fixtures.

In order to be accessible to a wheelchair user, bathroom fixtures must be at the appropriate heights. Toilet seats should be at least 15 inches above the floor and equipped with grab bars (floor- or wall-mounted or attached to the toilet itself). The necessary height can be achieved through the installation of a specially designed tall toilet, a wall-mounted unit, or with an elevated seat. It is also important to remember that the tissue holder needs to be mounted within convenient reach. Further, the sink should be mounted at a height that allows the wheelchair to roll underneath it, usually a 30-inch clearance. Frequently, this necessitates removal of below-sink cabinets, and care should be taken to cover exposed pipes and sharp edges and surfaces. Faucets should be within easy reach and easily operable with one hand. For individuals without the use of their hands or who have limited strength, faucets equipped with electronic sensors to automatically turn water on and off are available. Another access option is the installation of a faucet which can be activated using a single switch.

Access to bathing facilities is critical. In order to prevent injury and to facilitate transfers, enclosures should be free of door tracks or other obstructions and sharp edges. Further, tubs and showers should be equipped with grab bars and built-in seats or portable tub benches. Seats should be located opposite the controls and within easy reach. Offset controls which allow regulation of the water temperature from outside the tub or shower, anti-scald valves to prevent water temperature from exceeding a pre-set limit, and hand-held shower attachments are also beneficial.

Some of the same adaptations made to the bathroom are beneficial in the kitchen as well: removal of under-sink cabinets to allow wheelchair access, faucet control modification and anti-scald valves, and adequate floor space to facilitate turning and access to all fixtures and appliances. Cooktops with a 30-inch clearance and a separate self-cleaning oven at an appropriate height are also helpful. Both appliances should feature front- or side-mounted controls and be adjacent to counter space to facilitate moving and preparing food.

Another consideration in the kitchen is storage: at least one shelf in each cabinet should be a maximum of 48 inches above the floor. Where such a feature does not exist, or where more space is required, powered cabinets which lower the shelving unit to the countertop are available.

Storage and Laundry

When considering which areas of a home to make accessible, it is essential that the person with the disability evaluate the rooms and spaces in terms of usability: If the person with the disability needs or desires to use the space, it must be accessible. This includes living, family, and recreational areas, as well as closets and laundry facilities.

Frequently closets can be made accessible simply by lowering the hanging rods. When the existing rod is an integral part of the closet, a second one may be installed below it. Another option is the use of modular storage systems which include hanging rods, shelves, and drawers that can be configured to the specific requirements of the user. Powered units which raise and lower and/or rotate shelves and racks also are available.

Laundry facilities also need to be accessible if full independence is to be achieved. As with other areas, this involves providing sufficiently wide doorways, space for maneuvering, and suitable appliances. Most often, front-loading washers and dryers with easily operated, front-mounted controls provide the necessary access.

Funding Sources

Whether one is building an accessible home or modifying an existing residence, the cost can be prohibitive. A home equity or other bank loan may be one financing alternative. Depending upon one's circumstances and the nature of the disability, assistance may also be obtained through medical insurance, medical and social services, income support, or vocational services from any of a number of different resources. Consumer-oriented disability organizations and rehabilitation facilities may also provide information resources on funding assistance available in the local community. Additional information on funding accessible housing is available in a number of the publications listed in the Resources and Recommended Additional Reading section at the conclusion of this Guide, as well as in the ABLEDATA Informed Consumer's Guide to Funding Assistive Technology.


This ABLEDATA Informed Consumer Guide is a broad introduction to the legal and practical aspects of accessible housing. It is designed to enable the reader to consider what can be done and what needs to be done to make a home accessible. More detailed discussions of particular issues can be found in the following resource list. However, specific questions need to be addressed by legal, medical, and rehabilitation professionals. These are the people who can address issues unique to particular municipalities, and help determine the best course of action to meet the needs of specific disabilities.

Once the kinds of modifications needed are determined, information about specific products to help achieve the goal of accessible housing is available from the ABLEDATA database of assistive technology which provides information about and descriptions of more than 31,000 products for people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. Information Specialists are available to help provide specific information about a particular device or type of device or manufacturers and distributors of assistive technology.

Resources and Recommended Additional Reading

Home Modification/Design and Accessible Housing

For more information, see our Resource Center on Accessible Housing.

Legal Issues

General Resources


For an updated listing of organizations and other resources for people with disabilities, go to the ABLEDATA Web site,

This fact sheet was produced by ABLEDATA. ABLEDATA is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) under contract number ED-02-CO-0038 and is operated by ORC Macro.
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Fax: 301-608-8958.
All ABLEDATA publications, the ABLEDATA database of assistive technology, and other ABLEDATA resources are available on the ABLEDATA Web site,