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Wheelchair Accessible Closet Design

closet with wheel chair

The population in the United States is aging. For this reason, homes that allow owners to "age in place" are gaining more and more attention. Wheelchair accessible closet design is one of those features that make this happen. Whether you are planning for the future or need this now, closets that follow "Universal Design" or "Accessible Design" principles can be a worthwhile investment for your home.

ADA Compliant Closets:

The Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that clothes rods or shelves shall be a maximum of 54 in (1370 mm) above the finish floor for a side approach. Where the distance from the wheelchair to the clothes rod or shelf exceeds 10 in (255 mm) (as in closets without accessible doors) the height and depth to the rod or shelf shall comply with Fig. 38(a) and Fig. 38(b). Public accommodations must adhere to these guidelines. But what does this mean for your personal residence? The law is not enforceable for private residences. Should you follow these guidelines for accessibility anyway if you wish to age-in-place in your own home? The quick answer is yes. But there is a lot more you should consider when setting up your closets.

ADA figure 38a
Fig 38a - no more than a 21-inch reach to access closet shelves (Image courtesy of the ada.gov website).
ADA figure 38a
Fig 38b - no more than a 21-inch reach to access hanging garments in the closet (Image courtesy of the ada.gov website).

Universal Design vs. Accessible Design for Closets:

The ADA is a great place to start when considering how to make your closet handicap accessible. However, there is more you can do. Universal Design and Accessible Design are two building principles that go beyond the basic ADA guidelines for storage. Of the two, universal design has been publicized more and most of us will have heard of it. It is based on the premise that all homes should be constructed for universal use, meaning anyone can live in them, no matter whether you have special needs or not. Examples of this include multi-height countertops in the kitchen, larger bathrooms, pull-out shelves, and walk-in showers with a built-in chair rather than a tub/shower. Accessible design, on the other hand, includes all the features of universal design and then some. It adds even more wheelchair friendly features like pocket or barn doors that don't restrict wheelchair access, Level floors with no "bumps" between thresholds so that wheelchairs can easily glide between rooms, 36-inch wide doorways, and much more. There's a great article on the differences between these two design schools of thought for those who are interested in learning more at accessiblemed.com.

Use accessible design for bedroom closets.

Walk-in closet design dimensions for wheelchair accessibility.

man in a wheelchair accessing a reach-in closet
Make sure you have a minimum of five feet empty space in front of the closet door for wheelchairs to maneuver easily.

In addition to the maximum distance of 21-inches for reaching a shelf or hanger from a wheelchair as outlined by the ADA, wheelchairs need room to maneuver. Walk-in closets need a minimum of 5-feet open space inside the closet for a wheelchair to turn completely around. For many larger walk-ins, simply removing a closet island should afford that space. However, not all walk-ins are big enough to provide a 5-foot turn-around. Sometimes a wall must be removed between rooms to open up the space. If that is not possible, at a minimum, the wheelchair must be able to roll in and back out of the closet. The doorway and central pathway must be at least 36-inches wide to accommodate the wheelchair. A depth of 48-inches will ensure that a person in a wheelchair can completely enter the closet. However, the chair won't be able to turn around without that 5-foot x 5-foot space.

The type of door is critical in ensuring a smaller walk-in closet remains accessible to a wheel chair. A door that swings in is unacceptable. This type of door will block access to items stored behind it when it's open. If the person in the wheelchair can't turn around inside the closet and shut the door, they will never be able to get at those items. A pocket door or sliding barn door is recommended for best accessibility. Or completely remove the closet door and use the space without one. It goes without saying that there should be no bumpy thresholds where the door once stood. The flooring surface should remain level between the bedroom and the closet.

Reach-in closet design for wheelchair accessibility.

woman in a wheelchair accessing a reach-in closet
Make sure you have a minimum of five feet empty space in front of the closet door for wheelchairs to maneuver easily.

Reach-in closets can also work well for someone in a wheelchair. They just need to be mindful of furniture placement and keep the recommended 5-feet of open space outside the closet to manipulate the chair. Unfortunately, most closet doors used on the typical reach-in closet will be difficult to operate from a wheelchair. This is especially true of bifold doors. Pocket doors and sliding barn doors can work better on a reach-in closet if there is enough wall space next to the closet to accommodate them. If there isn't enough room for either of these, omit the door. A good replacement for cumbersome closet doors are remote controlled gliding window panels like the Skyline window treatments made by Hunter Douglas. The window panels are much more attractive than a simple curtain and are available with the renowned Hunter Douglas PowerView® motorization system. The remote control "pebble" as it is called, can be mounted on a wall or hand-held for easy operation. They are also compatible with most voice controlled Smart Home systems.

Wheelchair accessible closet design using a Skyline window treatment instead of door
Wheelchair accessible closet design using a Skyline window panel with motorized PowerView® opening instead of a traditional closet door.

Accessories can make a big difference in wheelchair accessible closet design.

The ADA is very clear on how far a handicapped person should need to reach for items stored on shelves or hangers. 21-inches is the maximum "stretch" to the back of the shelf or the top of the hanger. But that doesn't mean that deep shelves or high closet rods are out of the question. With some careful planning, you can still make sure you put every inch of closet space to use. All you need are the right closet accessories to help get the job done.

Use pull-out shelves.

wheelchair accessible pull-out shelves for closet
Pull-out shelves will make it easier for someone with limited mobility to access the back of the shelf.

Just because you have limited mobility doesn't mean you want to go around looking frumpy. Everyone wants and deserves nice clothes and shoes. But that means you need space for them in your closet. Many times, you're better off with deep shelves because the extra square footage allows them to hold more than shallower shelves. Shelves can be deep without exceeding the maximum 21-inch reach mandated by the ADA. The shelves simply need to be mounted on drawer slides so that they move in and out of the closet with ease. Easy to use and simple to install — it's a win-win closet accessory in every way. Use pull-out shelves to improve access to the back of your shelves. And this does not only help those in wheelchairs. Homeowners with arthritis or any type of limited mobility will benefit from this type of shelf. No more kneeling on the floor. You won't have to bend down, dig, or reach to get what you need.

Install pull-down rods.

wheelchair accessible pull-out shelves for closet
Pull-down rods lower the closet rod when needed so that those with mobility issues can remain seated while selecting clothing.

Pull-down rods are the most handicap accessible closet accessory you'll ever own. Plain and simple, they lower the closet rod to a height that is comfortable to reach when needed. But they also raise the rod back up when you don't need it. This ensures that you can continue to use every inch of storage space in your home. You can have the rods mounted high overhead, but they lower to ideal height when you want to get a hanger off the rod. This is much more user friendly than all sorts of poles with hooks and grabbers on the end. Pull-down rods are available in manual and remote-control versions depending on your preference. Both works well. However, the electronic ones hold more weight/clothes and also can achieve a lower height due to special extenders that are available. An important consideration if you are short or have a lot of clothes.

Good closet lighting is important.

Handicap accessibility is improved by good closet lighting
Good quality closet lighting makes an important difference on usability for the older homeowner. These closet lights are turned off and on by a handheld remote control.

We all face challenges with eyesight as we age. Whether it's cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, or simply a need for reading glasses, good lighting is important for all kinds of eyes. Improve your home's accessible design with a good lighting plan. This includes lights for the closets. Many closets are lit by a single bulb that is turned on and off by pulling a string. Not only is this fairly dark, but what if the string breaks? How is someone confined to a wheelchair supposed to turn on the lights? Get a good LED closet lighting system for your closet and avoid any problems. Many of these LED closet light systems turn on or off automatically when you open or close the door. Others work with a handheld remote control. Either way, they are a worthwhile improvement to wheelchair accessible closet design.

Enjoy your home longer as you age-in-place by investing in a good closet design.

Any other suggestions for ways to make a closet more accessible to wheelchairs? We'd love to hear about your ideas on accessible design. Use this comment box and let us know about things you've done to improve wheelchair access to the closets in your home.