By Rene Agredano
The old saying “There’s no place like home” feels true when it suits your needs.
But limb loss changes how you look at your residence and everything contained inside those walls. Stairs and doorways become adversaries, and an ordinary task can test your ingenuity and patience. The good news is that whether you rent or own your home, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or spend a lot of money to create a more accessible living space.
Accessing your home and everything inside it can be easier with a few low-cost modifications. For example:
1. Battery-powered keyless locks are a huge help.
2. Replacing interior doorknobs with lever-style door handles is a good idea for upper-limb amputees.
3. Adhesive-backed, motion-activated cordless lighting fixtures ensure mobility safety in dark sections.
4. Touch lamps give you one less thing to think about when entering or leaving a room.
5. Placing lightweight aluminum ramps at two exterior entry points makes access easier.
You may also want to subscribe to a service like Amazon Alexa. “Smart home devices are great help,” says Shawn Swanson Johnson, OTR/L, an occupational therapist from Houston. Once programmed, these devices can automatically turn on lights, control the heating system, or even play music. She especially loves how these devices can do it for a relatively low cost. “Back when I first started, smart homes were something you had to pay big bucks to get.”
IMPROVING MOBILITY IN THE HOME
For homes with narrow doorways, a rolling office desk chair can make room transitions easier for wheelchair users. Or you could invest in a lightweight transport wheelchair to use inside and on the go. The Drive Medical Aluminum Transport Chair features a 20-inch or 22-inch overall width (standard wheelchairs are approximately 26 inches wide) and small 8-inch wheels for smoother movement over varying floor surfaces. It weighs just 19 pounds.
It’s a good idea to have a combination of mobility aids, such as office chairs, transport wheelchairs, and walkers, for quick home access. Theresa Murphy of the USA Facebook Amputees group suggests keeping multiple sets of your most important devices within your home. “It makes it so much easier to not have to carry the item with you floor to floor.”
Many people also replace standard door hinges with wheelchair-friendly offset door hinges. This hardware swings the door away from the opening and adds about 2 inches of clearance for easier wheelchair or walker entry. Since the hardware fits standard 1.5-inch x 3.5-inch door hinges, even renters may be able to temporarily install them without damaging the door. For extra clearance, Kristin Reeves, PT, MS, recommends doorway modifications that are at least 36 inches wide.
DISHING IT UP IN THE KITCHEN
Kitchens can be an ongoing daily living challenge, but some quick adjustments can make it better. Start by placing small, useful kitchen appliances such as a microwave, one-touch food chopper, and push-button can opener lower on the countertop. Installing a one-handed faucet controller can also help. This device attaches to your existing faucet and activates water flow with just a nudge.
You might also want a Uccello Kettle. This appliance sits on a base that lets you pour hot water with a gentle swivel.
Other helpful kitchen tools include a rocker knife that cuts food with a light rocking motion instead of chopping (see pg. 5). The US-made model by Kenton Technologies features a 4.5-inch stainless steel blade that can be resharpened like other knives.
Wheelchair users will find food prep is easier when low kitchen cabinets are modified for roll-up use by removing the doors and interior shelving. If this type of retrofit isn’t practical, a wheelchair lap tray with a Dycem non-slip mat can enable meal prep. The grippy mats are also used to create non-slip floor mats, jar openers, and utensil handles for a more secure grasp. A bigger but effective kitchen improvement starts with drop-down cabinets created by OVIS, a small business in West Virginia. The company designs accessible pull-down and roll-out shelving that brings cabinets to the user, instead of forcing the user to reach and bend to retrieve objects.
FOCUS ON BATHROOM SAFETY
Creating a safe place to handle your hygiene needs is essential, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Depending on your mobility needs, bathroom safety modifications can include the addition of accessories like:
Grab bars around the toilet and shower
Grip-tape under a floor mat
Elevated toilet with handrails
Wall-mounted shower soap dispensers
Foot-operated soap dispenser
Bathtub shower chair and transfer bench
Hand-held shower head
The electric Tornado Body Dryer emits a warm, safe breeze and eliminates the need for towels. It can be installed in both standing shower enclosures and tub showers.
PACE YOURSELF FOR CHANGE
The process of rethinking how you access a home’s features is a long one, but don’t jump too quickly into major changes. If you’re a new amputee, Reeves advises holding off on permanent home modifications until you get a good feeling for what kinds of new features will work for you. “Any improvement made in the home is a good improvement. But sometimes one can move too fast,” she explains. “You should always try first to see if things can be done the way they are, before you make too many changes and get into too much of a cost.”
When you’re ready for a remodel, get creative and dig for options to help cover the cost. You may find help through religious groups, the Department of Social Services, and other nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity that provide home improvement aid for people with disabilities. Allison Lansberry of the USA Facebook Amputees group says she turned to a local church charity for help making basic home improvements. “I had a group of churches here in Baltimore that first took out my vanity,” she says. “They put a pedestal sink in, put a commode over the toilet, [and] put a shower chair and hand-held shower in the bath.”
ORDINARY OBJECTS BUILD INDEPENDENCE
Sometimes independence is created in the most gradual and unexpected ways. For Cindy, it first showed up in the form of a cable tie. The inexpensive implement was transformative for a woman who lost most of her fingers and both legs below the knees to a catastrophic heart attack, circulation issues, and an undetected drug allergy.
After a grueling six-month rehabilitation, even the most ordinary movements challenged her mobility and patience. Activities like opening a Ziploc bag, taking a hot pan out of the oven, or writing her name proved frustratingly difficult. The determined Bostonian gratefully accepted help from others but constantly searched for ways to regain her independence. “I tried desperately to think of ways to help myself,” she says. “It took time at home to find out which things were difficult and which were impossible.” She forced herself to be patient when tackling normal activities again. “I tried to think ‘How can I do this? How can I make this work?’”
First, plastic cable ties took on a new purpose in her home when Cindy’s husband attached the ties to drawer and cabinet pulls. The large loops created by them enabled her residual fingers to grasp pulls and retrieve objects. More importantly, they elevated her independence. “They cost pennies! It’s not fancy, and it didn’t require an engineering degree. But you immediately have access to all kinds of things,” she explains.
Next came self-adhesive wall hooks. Small but strong, they could be applied to jar lids of any size. Now her left hand could lift a jar and grip and turn the lid, while her other hand provided leverage. Cindy no longer needed to ask for help with this once-simple task.
Other household object adaptations followed, like repurposing cooking tongs as a sandwich holder, using tweezers and demitasse spoons to retrieve medication, and wrapping soft tubing around utensils and cosmetic tools for a better grip. Then, life-changing freedom came to Cindy when her prosthetist repurposed a piece of silicon to create a molded cap with a pen holder that fits over her residual limb. “It was the pen and being able to write that had a huge daily impact and changed my life,” she explains.
DISCOVER ENGINEERING AT HOME
Caitrin Lynch and Sara Hendren are faculty members at Olin College of Engineering. When they met Cindy they were moved by her story and adaptations, which inspired the Engineering at Home project.
The professors became convinced that Cindy’s story illustrated a new way of understanding who can engineer, what counts as engineering, and why it matters. They created a website about her adaptations, about Cindy herself, and about a new way of imagining engineering. The project spotlights how informal engineering with unlikely objects can greatly improve independence and mobility for people with physical limitations.
To discover some unlikely solutions, visit engineeringathome.org.