Beginning Guide to Creating a Wheelchair-Accessible Backyard That All Your Guests Can Enjoy

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated March 15, 2022
A grandfather in a wheelchair playing with his grandson in the backyard
Photo: Halfpoint / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Highlights

  • 13.7% of Americans have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

  • Only 6% of households in the U.S. are adequately accessible.

  • Minimize stairs and add wheelchair ramps.

  • Create wheelchair-accessible seating by using movable patio furniture.

  • Paths and entryways should be at least 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair.

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The best backyard design is one everyone can enjoy—but the truth is that most backyards in the U.S. aren’t wheelchair accessible. Many have steps, ledges, narrow paths, gravel walkways, or thick patches of grass that are difficult to navigate. Even something like a traditional garden bed, which most homeowners don’t give a second thought, can be difficult for wheelchair users to maintain on their own. 

More than 1 in 10 Americans have limited mobility, but a 2020 survey found that only 6% of households are adequately accessible. That means that if you want to create an outdoor space everyone can utilize, odds are you’ll have to do some work. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to create an accessible backyard.

Minimize Stairs

Minimizing stairs is a hallmark of universal design—the concept of creating a fully accessible space for all people. As such, a great way to ramp up your backyard’s wheelchair accessibility is by replacing your existing stairs with a literal ramp. A local wheelchair ramp designer can install a ramp that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This follows certain guidelines, like:

  • A maximum ramp slope of 1:12

  • A minimum ramp width of 36 inches (depending on the area)

  • Edges that are protected so someone can’t slip

  • Handrails on both sides of the ramp (depending on the ramp size)

  • Landings that are level and as wide as the ramp

  • Landings that are at least five square feet and 60 inches long

Ramps can be cost-prohibitive for many homeowners, but you may be able to land a grant to spend on home accessibility modifications. On average, a wheelchair ramp usually costs between $1,000 to $3,120.

Add Seamless Paths

Seamless paths aren’t just great for wheelchair users. They also help make your backyard accessible to people who need to use a walker or cane, push a stroller, or have difficulties walking on uneven ground. Pave your path with a smooth, stable, non-slip surface—like resin-bound gravel, large concrete slabs, or asphalt. Avoid gravel, stones, and mulch. 

For complete wheelchair access, pathways should be a minimum of 36 inches (for one wheelchair) or 78 inches (for two wheelchairs side by side). Include handrails and rest stops (like a well-placed bench) for people who have limited mobility but don’t use a wheelchair.

Raise Your Garden Beds

Traditional garden beds are not the best option for wheelchair users and those with limited mobility because they require kneeling and crouching to maintain. Instead, opt for raised garden beds. Put raised beds at a comfortable height so someone sitting in a chair can easily dig in with a garden trowel. Also, consider hiring a local landscaper specializing in hydroponics to install an irrigation system that makes watering simple.

Build a Vertical Garden

A woman taking care of her vertical garden
Photo: Carlina Teteris / Moment / Getty Images

Raised garden beds aren’t the only solution for wheelchair users with a green thumb. You can opt for a vertical garden, which doesn’t require crouching or kneeling to maintain (and is ideally fed water from a hydroponic system). Purchase a vertical garden hydroponic kit online or search for DIY vertical garden ideas online. Even hanging pots are a great solution.

Choose Non-Slip Decking

Decking may seem like it inherently lacks wheelchair accessibility, but there is a way to incorporate universal design into this type of outdoor living space. First, traditional wood decking can get slippery—especially when wet. To boost the safety and make your space more accessible, choose an anti-slip decking material or apply an anti-slip coating. Second, decks almost always have steps. Make sure to add a ramp or wheelchair lift.

Use a Sliding Glass Door for Indoor Access

Standard doors are typically too small to comfortably fit a wheelchair. For indoor access, opt for a sliding glass door or French doors 36 inches or wider. If possible, make sure the entryway is level. Add a small ramp if you need to, but avoid steps and ridges. It’s also important to think about the location of indoor access. Keep the entryway close to essentials like the kitchen or bathroom (which ideally has universal bathroom design).

Think About Seating

Wheelchairs take up a little more space than your average chair. When creating a seating area, make sure your outdoor furniture has an accessible solution. Avoid bar height tables. Instead, purchase a custom outdoor table that suits both wheelchair users and people who don’t use a wheelchair. You may also want to nix benches and opt for casual seating like lawn or patio chairs, which you can easily move to make more space.

If your seating area is on the lawn rather than a patio, make sure there’s a paved area for wheelchair access and avoid bar-height tables. When in doubt, a local hardscaper can help you create a seating area that’s fully wheelchair accessible.

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