Kitchens - the Heart of the Home

Marius Needham, a paraplegic, has been designing his dream kitchen for two years. “Every kitchen should be unique, but a few basics for the disabled make sense:

  • Everything should be in safe reach
  • If you don’t use something at least once a month, remove it from your kitchen
  • You can never have too many preparation areas
  • On either side of the stove there should be a pull-out work top
  • The sink area should have several pull-out prep boards, one with a removable stainless steel bucket to wipe all the peels and cut offs into for disposal.”

Kitchens should be custom built according to each individual’s needs, and with input from that person, not just based on the designer’s ideas. The design of a kitchen is the most important aspect of making it accessible.

The flow of a kitchen is always important for wheelchair users as it is difficult to push when your hands are full, and you want to avoid contact with the push rims once you have washed your hands and are working with food.

Modern kitchen designs and their space-saving features are often the perfect solution for people with disabilities, this is the Universal Design that Joan Seirlis is so passionate about – a design that suits everyone.

When designing a kitchen remember to discuss which costs you can claim back from tax with your tax consultant. The cost of independence enabling items fitted for disability can be claimed back against your tax.

Space and Flow

The amount of space available in the kitchen will affect the number of people who can be in it at any one time. It is often the social hub of a household so it is great if it can be designed to allow people to sit and chat while someone is preparing a meal. A wheelchair user requires more space depending on the size and manoeuvrability of their wheelchair. A turning circle of 1700mm diameter usually works. For more guidelines take a look at the “Design Guide for the Kitchen” found in the brochures section of the products menu at


Shelves below eye level enable you to see what is on them.

Having a glass front on high cupboards means you can see into them without having to open the door.

Hinged cupboard doors should open 180º. Sliding doors are better.

In a deep-shelved cupboard cut the upper shelf in half to give easier access to the back of the bottom shelf.

Using drawers or pull-out shelves for access to items at the back. Pull out shelves must have a barrier at the back to prevent items from falling.

Easy track rollers for spice cupboards should be close to work and cooking areas.

Push to release drawers, available from Roco, remove the need to pull out the drawer.

Roco and Semble-It have a number of solutions for under-the-counter corner cupboards which enable access to the back corner. In the unit pictured right shelves are attached to the door that pull the second shelf into a more accessible position as you open the door.

Slide out dust bins, concealed in a cupboard, are a popular solution as there is no lid to worry about, it is open when the door opens. It should be positioned close to the sink or the place where most washing, peeling and chopping of veggies is done.

The swing out pantry cupboard from Roco gives easy access to the back of large deep storage cupboards.

Work Surfaces

The most popular height of work surfaces for a person in a wheelchair is between 700mm –800mm.

Removing the kick boards from underneath cupboard units can drop them to a convenient height without changing the cupboards themselves.  When reselling the kick boards can easily be replaced.

Having an overhang on the edge of counters give improved access to a wheelchair user.

Pull out work tops can be a great solution in a small space. These are also slightly lower than the standard work surface, but allow a wheelchair user to get underneath them.

A Lap Tray is extremely useful for carrying items and can be used as a work surface for kitchens that lack accessible surfaces. (Available from Hi-Tech Therapy on (011-704-0002). Our travel writer, Mandy Latimore, suggests using a pinafore to prevent spills and burns as they are much easier to put on than an apron.

Where a kitchen is shared with able bodies having split level work surfaces can be a good solution.

The ultimate solution, for more than one person using a kitchen, is the Pressalit range, available through Jessen Dakile. At the press of a button, the work surfaces, cupboard units, hobs and sinks, are electronically adjusted to suit the height of each user.

Mathys Roets came up with a low cost solution to raise his table up so that he could fit under it, four bricks!

Stoves - Hobs - Ovens

Ovens with a side opening or upwards hinged door make access easier. Defy, Electrolux, Siemens and Elba all have side opening doors.

Lisa Bradshaw has difficulty lifting heavy pots so she uses a Salton Mini Kitchen – a small oven - which she has positioned in a cupboard at lap height. It is easy to open the oven door and slide the oven dishes straight onto a heat proof tray on her lap.

Knobs along the front of the hob are better for a short person or someone in a wheelchair. They are also better for the sight impaired.

The height of eye level ovens is an issue for persons of short stature or wheelchair users. The oven rack you use the most should not be higher than your shoulders.

If you are considering gas appliances they must be installed with an emergency shut-off within easy reach and/or an atmospheric gas leak detection system!

If you have space in the kitchen under hob access is great. It is most important to include a heat resistant protective layer underneath in order to prevent burns to your legs.

You need a heat resistant work surface close to your hob.

Hobs with touch panels are preferred for people with poor hand function. Glass top hobs with touch panels are available from Elba, Nardi, AEG, Electrolux, Miele and Samsung.

Microwaves ovens are very user friendly. Many have touch buttons which assists people with poor hand function,  and they can easily be positioned at a convenient height. They also provide a lower risk of burns compared to conventional ovens.

Siemens makes an ‘Oven Lift Matic’.  This is an oven that fits on the wall – usually above the work surface at the same height as the cupboards. At the press of a button the floor of the oven lowers to the level of the work surface. Once the food is placed on the oven floor it is again lifted back into position for the cooking.

Retha, who is blind, reports that Silicon oven gloves are an amazing solution for blind people as they can still feel through them without getting burnt. She uses ones that come up to her elbows.  These would also enable people with limited hand function to use their wrists and forearms to hold hot pans without getting burnt.

Sinks and Taps

Wheelchair access underneath the sink makes a difficult chore easier when it comes to washing up and preparing food.

Thank goodness for the lever taps which have now become so popular because they are so easy to use. These taps are essential for people with poor hand function or arthritis. A number of South African distributors, nationwide, carry the Franke range of lever taps which are ideal for this need.

For someone with upper limb weakness, or poor hand function, getting a pot full of water from the sink to the stove, and back is a problem. An easy solution is to have a sink (or even just a tap) close to the hob, so that the pot can be filled up and then slid across a heat resistant surface to the hob, (or vice versa) without it having to be lifted. A small trolley on wheels, available from Hi-Tech Therapy, can provide the solution: lift the pot onto the trolley, push the trolley to the sink etc.

This tap, available from Roco, has an extension pipe with an on/off button on the end. It can be swung around to fill up a pot next to the sink/stove.

Fridge/ Freezer

Marius Needham has opted for a table top fridge / freezer combination from Africhill for the sheer accessibility. “I do not have to bend to remove goods and I can look at what’s in my fridge. All doors slide and do not take up opening space.” Bauer also supplies sliding door fridges.

The drawers in most freezers make access easy and many fridges have a dispenser for water and ice on the door. This can be a great solution for people with poor hand function as they just have to hold their cup underneath the spout, press it against a sensor, and the water or ice is automatically dispensed. It is also a great way to get children to drink lots of water!

Electricity Points

The height of wall plugs and sockets is most important for persons of short stature, as well as wheelchair users, as is the distribution board, so that the trip switch can be reached if the power trips.

There can never be too many sockets in a kitchen. Having plenty means that electric appliances can remain plugged in as removing them can be a problem for a person with poor hand function.  Irene Joubert has her Kenwood mixer permanently plugged in inside a cupboard.  It sits on a special pull out shelf which automatically lifts it up to  a working height. Her Baking ingredients are stored close to the mixer cupboard so that she does not have to move far.

Marius Needham has come across a system (from Clipsal) that allows you to counter sink plugs on the work tops for easy reach and includes a remote control which enables you to turn plugs on and off.


Most people make use of a standard dishwasher, but the layout around the dishwasher is what makes it easy to use or not.  The dishwasher should be near the sink, but with enough space to position the wheelchair in order to load dirty dishes from the sink without having to move the wheelchair.   

There should also be adequate open surfaces next to the dishwasher for loading and unloading.

A six setting table-top dishwasher is available from Bosch and Jost. These are convenient for people who are unable to bend down to the standard dishwasher.

Ironing Boards

A fold out /slide away ironing board (available from Roco) gives good access underneath for a wheelchair. It can also be positioned at the correct height.

Washing Machines

It seems that front loaders are the most popular amongst wheelchair users, as most top loaders are generally too high.

LG has an 8.2 kg top loader available which is one of the lowest top loaders on the market.  

Supplier Contact Details

Builders Warehouse


Clipsal (Schneider Electric)

011 254 6500

Easylife Kitchens

0861 327 9543

Lovemore Cupboards

082 451 8188

Jessen Dakile

011 793 6260


011 444-9120


0861 542436

Columnist Photos