By Nina Patel. Accessible designs and products in the kitchen help all cooks -- whether they are able-bodied, short, tall, elderly, a child, or in a wheelchair. But, says gerontologist Jeff Lefkovich, "the general public will not think about this until they are confronted with health-related issues." So it falls to designers to educate homeowners about including accessible designs and appliances in their kitchens.

In general, Lefkovich says, the room should have enough space for a wheelchair or walker. This includes wide aisles and doorways, large toe kicks, and differing countertop heights. He suggests installing two small islands instead of one large one. Here are some more specific ideas for the rest of the kitchen.

Take the heat

Lefkovich says using a cooktop and wall oven instead of a range offers flexibility for wheelchair users. Remodelers can install cooktops in a countertop with an open space underneath. "If you can, place a swiveling stool that slides in and out under the cabinet," he says.

Patricia Johnson is an interior designer and the author of three books on accessibility. She says installing a mirror on the back wall above the cooktop allows wheelchair users to see into pots while they're cooking.

Users can quickly and easily wipe off spills from a glass cooktop. Roll-out pantry shelves bring ingredients within reach for all cooks. Courtesy GE Appliances Cooktops with side or front controls are the best. "Controls on the back are a safety hazard for someone who has difficulty reaching," Lefkovich says. He also suggests choosing products with large numbers and lettering on a contrasting background. "As people age, their ability to see things clearly sharply diminishes," he says. Choose large, non-slip knobs or push buttons. Light and sound indicators that warn when a cooktop is on are also helpful. Through her work at a rehabilitation center, Johnson found that glass cooktops are easy to clean and to slide pots back and forth on.

Designers should install built-in ovens, Lefkovich says, at a height that does not require a user to bend over. Johnson says some companies offer wall ovens with knobs on the side or indicators in Braille, although Johnson cautions remodelers to expect long lead times for those special order items.

Cold facts

Both Johnson and Lefkovich agree that side-by-side refrigerators are preferable because users don't have to reach, bend, or crouch to reach the freezer, depending on where it's located. Under-counter and drawer refrigerators need to be evaluated based on the users in the specific kitchen, Johnson says.

Contrasting edges on countertops define the work surface for those with poor eyesight. Courtesy Comfort Designs Johnson recently saw a refrigerator door that opened when a user stepped on a floor lever or rolled over a floor ledge with a wheelchair. Other helpful accessories include slide-out shelves, deeper doors for large items, and adjustable shelves with lever controls. Johnson says some refrigerator manufacturers will lower the location of the automatic icemaker. Look for refrigerator handles that make it easy to open and close the door. "The refrigerator needs suction to maintain the seal, but it should not require too much strength to open," he says. Handles with a C or D shape allow cooks to use their whole hand -- not just the tips of their fingers -- to open the heavy door.

Washed up

Lefkovich says raising a dishwasher 9 inches off the floor will make it easier to use. It also creates a higher countertop that can be used for a microwave or as a work area for a taller family member. Elderly homeowners are less able to filter out background noises, he says, so specify an ultra-quiet dishwasher for them. Johnson says dishwashers with front push-button knobs are great for the whole family. Manufacturers offer a range of racks, so choose one that best fits your client's needs.

Installing an open sink and a pull-out faucet makes washing up easy for wheelchair users, children, and the elderly. Courtesy Comfort Designs Double sinks with different depths are comfortable for all family members to use, as well. Adjustable height sinks are available, but they are expensive. Placing a sink in the island allows wheelchairs to fit underneath, but it does take up valuable storage space that designers may have to provide elsewhere. Also, "all exposed pipes must be padded. Many wheelchair users don't have feeling in their legs and can be burned easily," Johnson says. She suggests installing faucets on the left or right side of the sink instead of along the back. Lever handle and spray faucets are also helpful. Spray faucets should have rubber components to help grasp the faucet and should feel comfortable in the user's hand.

13 Tips for Universal Design

  • Install wider doorways and hallways.

  • Use pocket doors or doors with hinges that allow them to open wider.

  • Use lever door and faucet handles.

  • Install good task lighting.

  • Include differing levels of countertops.

  • Use contrasting colors to define the edge of a countertop.

  • Choose flooring and countertops in contrasting colors.

  • Specify appliances with contrasting labels/knobs.

  • Make sure knee clearances have a minimum width of 30 inches, but 36 inches is ideal. The clearance should also be 27 inches high and 19 inches deep.

  • Toe kick clearances should be 9 inches high and 6 inches deep.

  • Include a rolling cart in the kitchen.

  • Choose cabinets with pullout shelves.

  • Provide seating so cooks can sit while preparing meals.

    Courtesy Comfort Designs

    Bench Warmer

    This built-in seating area is part of an open kitchen and family room remodel. The clients wanted to add warmth to the whole room and create a comfortable space for themselves and their two children. The family needed a multi-purpose table for eating and homework for the kids. A table with chairs, however, did not fit around the steps that lead from the mudroom into the living area. So Anthony Wilder, owner of Anthony Wilder Design/Build, and project architect Steve Backus designed a bench with two legs anchored on the floor and two legs shortened by 7 inches and anchored to the lower step.

    Wilder's crew crafted the fir tabletop and bench in the firm's shop. Master carpenter Frank Bassett fitted the table into the window frame. "The bull nose becomes the sill in the window," Wilder says. A single leg in the center of the opposite end provides additional support.

    The contrasting white storage cabinets are staggered to provide display space. The white finish ties in with the built-in bench and storage shelves in the family room.