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Accessible Kitchen Design

Adam Thomas, expert in accessible kitchen design, explores the areas that occupational therapists should consider when helping clients design a kitchen that offers safety, independence, and style

Occupational therapists have a vital role in ensuring that kitchen design supports safety and independence for older and disabled people.

The first thing I would say to an OT is seek expert accessible design input. The right design can be life-changing and enable someone to be more independent, for longer. Learn as much as you can about the principles of accessible design, your client’s requirements, and what is available for their needs and in their price range.

Understanding the principles of accessible kitchen design, the range of options and products available, and tailoring this specifically to an individual’s capabilities and requirements is the key to maximising safety and independence.

accessible kitchen design

I would recommend that OTs make an appointment with an expert kitchen designer to visit an accessible kitchen showroom with their client - so that they can gain practical insight and understand what works for them.

This includes assessing someone’s strength, reach, grip, dexterity and cognition in a kitchen that offers a range of safety and access features.

It also means taking accurate measurements – such as how high or low they can safely reach while standing, and how heavy an item they can lower safely from a shelf or cupboard at this height.

For a wheelchair user or someone who uses a perching stool, the height and weight issue is important, but so is their knee-height and what I call ‘toe to tum’ - so that they can make use of leg space to reach to the far side of worktops and to ensure that they can pull in under a sink, hob or prep space and not damage toes.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that requirements can change, perhaps as people age or their condition progresses. Futureproofing, for example by ensuring leg space for the future or considering rise and fall waterfall edged worktops for sink and hob can help. I sometimes work with amputees who have recently been rehabilitated, have a new prosthetic and don’t feel they need any adaptations. Hard as it is, it’s worth considering the worst-case scenario – a pressure sore on a stump that means using a chair for a while, for instance. With a flexible design, you can maintain your independence at times when you are more restricted. Such built-in adaptability can also be vital to ensure that kitchens work for the whole household.

Considering the layout of a kitchen, I always recommend that the hob, sink and oven are on the same run and that there is leg space (for now or for the future) beside the oven. This means that worktop is easily available to place hot things from the oven and that they can be slid towards the sink later.

accessible kitchen design

Appliances are crucial, both the type and the position. I always recommend an induction hob, as it will turn off automatically, should someone forget to do so. The surface will not get as hot as an electric hob and it is, in every way, far safer than gas. For the oven, I always recommend a ‘slide and hide’ door with fully-telescopic shelves, so that an older or disabled person does not have to reach into the oven, risking burns. I design in a heat-resistant shelf below the oven, so that a hot dish can be moved safely in stages onto the worktop and it protects a clients lap.

Many appliances now can be operated remotely, including via AI assistants, from a smartphone. They can be linked via an app so that, for example, a family member living elsewhere, or a PA, can check whether the oven has been used in the past few days or has been turned off at night.

There are so many fantastic access features now, in products, appliances and good design, to enable older and disabled people to cook for themselves and for others. I have had so many clients brought to tears by the ability once again to cook a meal – even make a cup of tea – for a friend. Kitchen design is about safety, about independence, but so much more as well. Not just survival, but our socialisation and sense of self-worth and interconnectedness.

I can’t stress enough how much this expert, aspirational approach matters, particularly to children, young people and those who are newly disabled. Having a kitchen that is safe, easy to use, and pleasant to be in can make such a difference to how you feel about your life and your prospects, as well as how you function. As a wheelchair user since I was 17, I know this myself.

Useful guides include Wheelchair Housing Design Guide, Third Edition, which includes a look at the relevant Building Regulations.

About the Author Adam Thomas is an independent design consultant, acknowledged as a world leader in accessible, multi-generational and inclusive kitchen design. Drawing on 40 years of personal experience and research, his kitchen designs have transformed homes and lives across the country. He has developed a set of design principles widely recognised, some of which are incorporated into the building regs. Adam's ambition is to change the face of accessible kitchen design and enable access for all, by designing flexible, high-quality kitchens with a full choice of colours and materials. 


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