How to Assess Home Entryways for Improved Accessibility

Being able to enter and exit a home quickly and safely is not only a matter of everyday efficiency and independence. In case of an emergency, such as a natural disaster or a medical problem, it can be crucial.

Fortunately, steps don’t have to be barriers to consumers who use wheelchairs, scooters or walkers. Vertical porch lifts, ramps and even customized steps can make home entryways more safely accessible.

Solution 1: Vertical Porch Lifts

A vertical porch lift can potentially carry and raise a consumer, his/her mobility vehicle, and a caregiver or attendant, depending on the weight of each and the weight capacity of the lift. Typically, the footprint of a vertical lift is smaller than that of a ramp, assuming that the height to be cleared is about 6" or higher; in other words, a porch lift can rise to greater heights in much less space than a ramp requires. Therefore, vertical porch lifts can be the better solution in tighter spaces or if uneven terrain makes it impossible to build a safe ramp.

Their smaller footprints can make vertical porch lifts much less conspicuous than ramps, and lifts can be less expensive than longer ramps, as well. While porch lifts have traditionally been most often used for a home’s back or side entrances, in many cases they can be used alongside the steps leading to a home’s front door, thus preserving the original method of entry.

Incidentally, today’s typical vertical porch lifts consume relatively small amounts of energy — one manufacturer likened a porch lift’s power usage to the power you’d use when turning on a TV — so the ongoing impact on the consumer’s wallet should be minimal.

Solution 2: Ramps

Ramps vary in length, depending on the height of the threshold or the stairway that needs to be overcome. So-called threshold ramps can range in height from less than an inch to several inches high to overcome doorway thresholds. Shorter portable ramps, including “suitcase” styles that fold and can be carried via handles, are available in lengths ranging from 2' to 8' and can offer accessibility over a step or a shorter series of steps.

Steps of greater heights require longer ramps, for which slope is a critical element. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements say the maximum slope in new-building construction should not exceed 1:12 — that’s 12 inches of ramp length for every one inch of rise. ADA rules also say 30" is the maximum rise that a ramp can traverse, and that builders should use the least possible slope when creating ramps.

The reason for those rules: Steeper slopes can be difficult for wheelchairs and scooters to travel without tipping, and can be difficult or impossible for self-propellers to navigate, according to the Minnesota Ramp Project, a joint venture by the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (MCIL) and the Minnesota Division of Rehabilitation Services. Consumers who ambulate using walkers or rollators may also have strength, stamina or balance difficulties if the slope is too great.

The Minnesota Ramp Project led to the ongoing Home Wheelchair Ramp Project, which educates consumers and healthcare professionals about safe and accessible home entryways. The site includes video excerpts on such topics as ramp design and safety, including what can happen when ramps are built with plywood and other less durable materials. Check out the “Design Considerations” clip on the Videos page: The footage of wellintended but poorly built ramps speaks powerfully to the importance of working with accessibility professionals to install safe, durable ramps.

Solution 3: Long-Tread, Low-Riser Steps

MCIL acknowledges that cramped or steep environments are not always conducive to ramp installation. If the consumer ambulates with crutches, a walker or similar equipment, MCIL suggests considering long-tread, low-riser steps. These steps — obviously, not an option for wheelchairs or scooters — have plenty of length to safely accommodate crutches or a walker, and the height of the steps is calculated to fit each consumer’s unique walking ability, balance and comfort.

“When a ramp is impractical, the long-tread, low-riser steps provide a safer alternative than carrying an occupied wheelchair on regular steps,” MCIL says. “The long-tread, low-riser steps are most appropriately used by people who have some walking ability, but find regular steps difficult. For the steps to be safe and easy to use, it is very important to determine the correct height of the riser — the vertical drop between the level treads for the person who will be using the stairs.”

MCIL recommends that step height be consistent to facilitate safe ambulation, and that a physical therapist or other healthcare professional help determine the appropriate riser height for each consumer’s needs. Once again, while consumers or their families may think this kind of work could be done by themselves or a general contractor, it’s best to get the input of a clinician who can personally assess the client’s needs and walking abilities.

Entryways Extras

  • The Home Wheelchair Ramp Project educates consumers and healthcare professionals on making home entryways safely accessible. Fulllength videos and manuals can be purchased through the Web site, which also includes video excerpts on ramp design and safety. Go to wheelchairramp.org/VideoPage.html

  • ADA Accessibility Guidelines spell out ramp requirements, including slope, ramp widths (36" minimum) landings, handrails and surfaces. Visit access-board.gov/adaag/html/adaag.htm#4.8

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Mobility Management.

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