Widening doorways makes homes accessible for people who use wheelchairs and is an important feature for aging in place.
Why is home wheelchair accessibility important?
Widening a doorway for wheelchair access is an essential home feature to age in place successfully. Wider doorframes are also integral to universal design which creates liveable spaces for everyone, no matter their ability. A wheelchair-friendly home not only creates accessibility, but also improves comfort and convenience for all.
Many people are surprised to find out that most homes lack wheelchair accessibility with doorframes that are too narrow. This is often the case with bathroom doors and in order to make a necessity like the bathroom accessible, the doorway must be enlarged.
Many seniors will need to use a wheelchair at some point, temporarily or permanently, as they grow older. Enlarging door openings help improve home comfort, convenience, accessibility, safety, and independence for those who live there and visitors.
While walkers can usually fit through most doorways, wheelchairs are often too wide to fit. Let’s start by looking at various types of wheelchairs and their sizes.
Wheelchairs are chosen to fit a person’s specific needs and there are different types and sizes of wheelchairs available. The width of the wheelchair should comfortably accomodate the size and shape of the user’s body.
In many instances, even a standard wheelchair size will not fit a home’s configuration. Although a narrower wheelchair may fit through existing doorways, it won’t best serve the needs of the wheelchair user and could potentially cause harm.
Wheelchairs are usually classified by their seat width and the distance of the seat upholstery between the armrests. The total width of the wheelchair takes into account the additional width of the armrests and wheels beyond the seat.
The total manual wheelchair width is about 8 inches wider than the seat width.
Standard manual wheelchair: A standard wheelchair usually has a 16-20 inch wide seat with an overall average wheelchair width of 24-28 inches.
Here’s an example of a standard manual wheelchair.
Bariatric manual wheelchair: These heavy-duty wheelchairs can accommodate greater weight and typically have 22-36 inch wide seats. The total overall width of these chairs generally range from 30-46 inches wide.
This is an example of a bariatric manual wheelchair.
Transport wheelchair: Transport wheelchairs have a narrower profile and are usually about 20 inches wide overall. These narrow transport chairs have wheels underneath the seat instead of to the sides eliminating width.
Here’s a transport wheelchair example.
Power wheelchair: Electric wheelchairs are often about 24 inches wide since their wheels sit underneath rather than to the sides of the seat.
This is an example of a motorized or power wheelchair.
Mobility scooter: On average, mobility scooters are about 27 inches wide.
Here is an example of a mobility scooter.
How wide should a doorway be for a wheelchair?
Doorway width requirements are determined by the width of the wheelchair, which can vary significantly depending on type of wheelchair. Generally, most standard wheelchairs can fit through a 30 inch to 32 inch doorframe. But many household doors are 28 inches wide or less. Wide wheelchairs, such as bariatric wheelchairs will usually be too wide to fit.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which sets accessibility standards for public and commercial buildings, wheelchair-accessible doorway access must be at least 32 inches wide with the door fully open. ADA standards generally do not apply to residences, but local building codes apply.
Standard interior doors are 28 inches, and exterior doors are 36 inches wide. But there is much variability within each home and between different homes. Bathroom doors tend to be relatively narrow.
How to determine if doorways need to be widened
Several factors determine the amount of space a wheelchair needs to move through a doorway. Wheelchair width and whether the wheelchair is pushed by someone else are essential considerations.
Factors affecting doorway width
More passageway clearance is needed if a person is pushing the wheelchair manually to account for using their hands on the wheels without hitting their arms on the doorframe.
Suppose there is a tight corner, such as a perpendicular wall next to the door, which does not allow the door to open fully. In that case, there is less functional space within the doorway despite the actual measurement from one side of the doorframe to the other.
When a wall limits the wheelchair from turning to enter or exit the doorway, factor in how wide the doorframe needs to be for an adequate turning radius.
Minimum doorway width recommendations for wheelchairs
As a general rule, the more wheelchair clearance, the better. This will help avoid bodily injuries and scrapes and dents on door trim and walls.
Other than ADA standards – a 32 inch interior door minimum – there are differing opinions about the minimum door clearance needed.
Before widening doorways, understand how the person will use the wheelchair. This will help determine how much to enlarge the opening.
Wheelchair measurement guidelines for standard and bariatric wheelchairs
If another person pushes the wheelchair, take the total width of the wheelchair plus a few extra inches.
If the person is pushing the chair themselves, add a few more inches for at least 6-8 inches wider (preferably more) than the wheelchair width.
Transport chair: Since this type of chair is narrow, it should fit through a standard 28-inch doorway or one that is a few inches narrower.
Power wheelchair: Most electric wheelchairs should also fit through a standard 28-inch doorway.
Scooter: Most mobility scooters should fit through a standard 28-inch doorway.
Other benefits of a wider doorway
Wider doorways make it easier to fit a wheelchair, scooter, walker, and cane.
The extra space may allow two people to walk side-by-side through the doorway such as someone assisting an older individual or adult holding a child’s hand.
Expanding a narrow doorway can open up ample space and make your home feel bigger.
Larger doorways make it easier to carry groceries and children, maneuver luggage, push a child’s stroller and move furniture, appliances and packages.
A widened doorway also improves airflow in the home.
Additionally, larger door widths reduce the chance of injury from bumping into the door frame.
3 Easy ways to widen a doorway for wheelchair access
When only a few extra inches of clearance are needed, these simple methods may expand the doorway enough to be usable without the need for construction.
Change the door hinges
When a door is open 90 degrees, the door takes up about 2 inches of space in the doorway. The existing hinges can be removed and replaced with swing clear hinges, also called offset hinges. This moves the pivot point for the door hinges adding about 2 inches of functional space to the doorway.
The door’s thickness no longer restricts the doorway, so clearance is now the entire width of the doorframe. Here’s a quick video showing the difference between a traditional hinge and a swing clear hinge. Note: The video is several years old and says that offset hinges can only be purchased at specialty stores. Swing clear hinges are now available at local home improvement stores.
Space gained: About 2 inches
Tools needed: Screwdriver
Cost: $40-$75 for offset hinges
Reverse the door swing
Another way to create a wider doorway is by reversing the door’s swing. If the door cannot open more than 90 degrees but, when switched, could open fully, this solution may work.
The idea here is to remove the door and frame and then re-install the door and frame in the same opening, allowing the door to swing in the opposite direction.
Space gained: About 2 inches
Tools needed: Screwdriver
Cost: $0 in materials
Remove the door
If the door is unnecessary, such as between a bedroom and the bedroom closet, consider removing the door, door frame, and trim. Finish the doorway as a trimmed opening.
Space gained: Up to 4 inches depending on the distance between the door frame and wall studs.
Tools needed: Screwdriver, hammer, pry bar, pliers, putty knife, reciprocating saw
Cost: $100-200 for new trim
Cost for accessibility modifications to widen a doorway
Change the door hinges: $40-$75 for offset hinges
Reverse the door swing direction: $0 for materials
Remove the door: $100-200 for new door trim
Construction options to widen a doorway for wheelchair access
If the above methods don’t provide enough clearance, construction methods to widen a doorway for wheelchair access will be necessary. Replacing the current door frame with a larger frame can be a straightforward project unless electrical such as light switches and receptacles, and plumbing and ventilation are in the way. Costs can range from $300-800 for materials if walls are not load bearing and no electrical, plumbing, and HVAC must be moved. Otherwise cost can be thousands of dollars.
Therefore, the best time to consider future needs and door widths is during contruction, either new construction or with home remodeling projects. By creating wider doorways and hallways, accessibility problems can be minimized or even eliminated. Additionally, you can enjoy all of the everyday benefits of wide doors and hallways.