Accessible Kitchens

Lucile Guidry, Attaway, Denise  |  4/14/2009 2:36:47 AM

A kitchen is often thought of as the “heart of a home.” For generations, families and friends have gathered in kitchens to make and break bread, as well as engage in a wide range of social activities. Even when more formal social activities moved to the dining room, livings rooms and dens, they often retained the central focus of the products of the kitchen -- food, drink and comfort.

Todays kitchens usually have modern cook stoves -- not open hearths; hot and cold running potable water -- not pumps, or buckets from the well or cistern for cleaning; and refrigerators and freezers for safe storage of fresh food -- not stillrooms and root cellars.

Philosophically, kitchens have always been viewed as work areas. The main work done in a kitchen is recognized as very important to survival. Kitchen safety arose from awareness of the surroundings and comfort was not a primary consideration.

Today, we live longer than our predecessors did and, as a result, are less likely to be as dexterous as we once were and significantly less mobile. We may be much healthier overall “for our age,” but the first room in our homes where our independence is challenged is likely to be the kitchen. During the last few decades new designs for kitchens, the tools and appliances used there have undergone major redesigns. Safety is the underlying theme with comfort and usability next. Most of us want to maintain our independence as long as we can with minimal changes as required by health and physical concerns. To make this a possibility, today’s designers have produced new designs and levels of functionality for many of the old standbys like dishwashers, drawer handles, baking pans and cabinet heights.

  • Major kitchen designs
– Floor plans today often include wider entry doorways to get into a kitchen. Passageways and maneuvering dimensions are a minimum of 42 inches wide. The optimal clearance is 6 feet for areas where an individual needs to turn around and can be used by someone in a wheelchair. This doesn’t mean a galley kitchen is not a good choice, but it does mean that the passageway must be wider.
  • Cabinets designed for increased mobility and use include careful placement of handles for access from wheelchair. The design of the doors and drawers needs to be sized in such a way that when fully opened, the person does not have to sacrifice safety or mobility. This means that the floor plan of the kitchen area must have adequate clearance for use of cabinets. Hardware selections need to be easy to use, even for those with diminished capacity and flexibility.
  • Height of cabinets also is important. In some cases, access to the "overhead" cabinets and shelves may not be possible, so the wall area above the countertops may not be useable as kitchen storage.
  • Recessed cabinet doors can provide “knee holes” to provide greater access to countertop work areas, access to the sink, small appliances and range tops.
  • Shallow pantries and sliding shelves and drawers allow better and safer access to food, utensil and appliance storage.
  • Counter height is very important. Counters that are too tall or too deep can be dangerous to back health, as well as prohibit access to work area and tools. Counters should be not taller than 34 inches (floor to top of work surface) and should have 8-inch toekicks under the cabinets to provide safer and better access to the work surface. Often, a desk area or eating area will be added, but it will be lower than the counter and a higher than "regular" table (30 inches is the standard table height) provides seamless transition from primary food preparation areas to other tasks.
  • Sinks and cooktops are frequently located a few inches below the level of the main countertop for safety. A kneehole area incorporated into the design is particularly comfortable for those using walkers, wheelchairs and scooters to mobility assistance.
  • Pull-out work areas (such as cutting boards) at a comfortable level provide additional independent work stations. Reinforced areas adjacent to ovens provide safe and versatile areas to place just cooked (and hot) dishes.

  • Major appliances
are the focus of most kitchens. Selecting the most accessible appliances can be very important. Many appliance manufacturers today have taken access into design. Because of this, their design lines contain models that are both accessible have upgraded safety features. This makes the whole range of options much wider. Some major appliances and options include:
  • Stoves are often the biggest challenge. For many people, the selection of a stove or range design sets the entire tone for the rest of the kitchen. Cooktops with separate built-in ovens are often a popular choice. Placement of the rangetop with a kneehole and recessed lower cabinets is a comfortable and safe feature for many. If the built-in oven is installed below countertop height, removal of hot dishes from the oven directly to the counter can be an advantage. As with any undercounter installation, it is important to consider if small children will be in the area. This might constitute a safety hazard for them.
  • Traditional ranges are often the best option for many families. Ease of maintenance is an important factor in choosing the best range. Safe use of this appliance is important. Keep in mind that a bottom drawer may end up being just so much wasted space as accessing a bottom drawer can be a dangerous activity from a wheelchair.
  • Microwave ovens have become a mainstay in many of today’s homes. Undercounter installation of a microwave oven is a good choice for many homeowners. It provides ease of access to cooked food with the countertop immediately adjacent to the opening. Once again, microwaves located under a counter can be a safety hazard if small children are in the house.
  • Refrigerators traditionally are a major component of the kitchen design. With so many refrigerator designs available, selecting the best one for your household it can be difficult! Many people find the French-door design provides a wider area for cold food storage selection and the lower drawers provide easier access to frozen foods. Other people believe refrigerators with the standard dimensions best suit their lifestyles. Sill, for a lot of people, the counter depth width of some of the new refrigerators can mean less food left at the back of the refrigerator to go bad.
  • Dishwashers today are made of two main designs -- standard drop door designs and drawer designs. When someone is renovating a current kitchen, it may be best to continue using an existing dishwasher. In other circumstances, consideration of the drawer type dishwashers may be best. On consideration is the available space. Some of the design decisions may result in the need to split up the dishwasher spaces. With many of the drawer designs, it is possible to place the drawers side by side instead of vertically. This can result in greatly accessibility and less back strain. For other households, the standard drop front dishwasher allows a wider range of items to be placed in side.
  • Small appliances can be one of the most fun choices for the kitchen. When selecting it is important to consider the following:
    • Access to power source.
    • Storage placement.
    • Usage placement.
    • Ease and safety of use.
    • Maintenance.

  • Kitchens tools
are always one of the primary considerations of running a kitchen. For greatest safety and usability, consider storage options, maintenance and general safety.
  • Knives are one of the most obvious of the potentially dangerous pieces of equipment in the kitchen. Storage is probably the most important feature and maintenance the other.
  • Hot pads are one of the best safety items in the kitchen. Aside from the traditional thick padded mitts and pads, knitted versions made of heat-resistant material are available and silicon mini-mitts, pads and mats (for the counter) are easy to find.
  • Cookware and bakeware made of silicon are also easy to find. Unlike glass and ceramic, silicon does not break or bend, and it also does not retain as much high heat as standard items do.
  • Other kitchen tools should be kept in safe storage areas and in good condition.

The main point to keep in mind when considering a more accessible kitchen is that an accessible kitchen is a smarter designed kitchen. A properly designed kitchen is one of the main considerations in continuing one’s independence in a home, which of course means a more comfortable quality of life for most people.

When determining the accessibilty of a kitchen, remember the following overall concepts:

  1. Flat thresholds.
  2. Open plan with wide doorways and passages.
  3. Adequate turning space (minimum 5 feet).
  4. Light switches and outlets between 18 inches to 42 inches above the floor.
  5. Controls for appliances and other equipment should be easy to reach, see, understand and operate.
  6. Flooring should be smooth, firm and slip-resistant.
  7. Systems, materials and finishes should be low-maintenance.
  8. Reachable storage, full-extension drawers and shelves, open shelves and adjustable rods and shelves.
  9. Work surfaces at various heights for access by various users—sitting or standing.
  10. Countertops should be generous with easy access.
  11. Adequate lighting.
  12. Easy to operate windows and remote control units.
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