Life with MS

Cookin' Up an Accessible Kitchen

By Shelley Peterman-Schwarz
No matter what time of day, what time of year, or what the occasion, everyone likes to congregate in the kitchen – the heartbeat of the home. But what happens when chronic illness and disability enters your life and symptoms flare up and then subside? How can you make your kitchen safer, more user-friendly, and easier to use without costly remodeling? This was what I had to do when I was diagnosed with primary-progressive MS more than 30 years ago.
As I needed to modify the way I did things in the kitchen, my husband and I worked together to make it easier for me to participate in meal preparation and cleanup. I sat on a stool when I was cooking at the stove. I put the silverware in a tray that we kept near the table to eliminate the need to carry the silverware to the table. We purchased “convenience foods,” such as grated cheese, frozen chopped onions, and bagged salad greens to streamline meal preparation.
As it became more difficult for me to walk, stand, and carry items, I looked for ways to stay involved and do what I could. I didn’t want to abdicate my responsibility just because of my limitations. So, my husband and I began teaching our two elementary school age children how to use small appliances and knives safely. After dinner, I supervised the kids while they washed the dishes and swept the floor, using techniques and devices that made it easier for them. Tasks took longer than usual, but over time, our children became very capable helpers and comfortable with all facets of food preparation.
As the disease progressed, we made more modifications to our kitchen and learned about additional modifications that could be made to help people with all kinds of limitations. I hope the information below helps and guides you as you adapt your kitchen to your needs.
Use contrasting color to signal room/use changes
Color contrast helps older people or those with low vision see where the counter or cabinet ends and the floor begins. Provide visual cues to work spaces by changing the color of the wood or tile in front of the sink and stove. Install dark counters and doors over lighter cabinets and floors. Add a contrasting border to delineate where the floor ends and the wall begins.
Separate your stove and oven
Instead of a traditional stove/oven combination, install a stovetop 30-32 inches high, with front mounted, child-safe controls, over an open cabinet that allows a minimum of 24 inches of knee space (high and wide) and mount a side-hinged wall oven 18 inches off the floor for easier and safer access no matter what your height.
Use a side-by-side refrigerator
Having both the freezer and refrigerator section accessible from top to bottom is easier for everyone, even children, to access. Place the most frequently used items within easy reach in the shallow shelves on the door or in slide-out baskets and drawers.
Choose a drawer style dishwasher
Mount it higher (12 to 18 inches off the floor) so there is less stooping and bending required to load or unload it. Consider installing a drawer underneath the dishwasher so you utilize the space below.
Place frequently used appliances on countertops
Microwave ovens, toasters, or blenders are much easier to use if they are at countertop height instead of over the stove or inside a cabinet. Cover them with decorative covers if you don’t like the look of the appliance sitting out or create an appliance “garage” with a retractable tambour door to hide them; kits are available online.
Install full-extension drawers and shelves in base cabinets
Lower cabinet areas are much more useable for everyone, if the items inside slide out to meet you rather than having to get down on your knees and crawl inside. Home improvement stores sell wire inserts to fit existing cabinets, or for something sturdier, consider custom drawers from companies that specialize in them.
Replace any round pull knobs with large handles
These can be opened with little effort by those with arthritic hands. To make an existing knob pull into a lever handle, secure a cane or furniture leg tip over the knob, and insert a wooden dowel through the tip.
Create colored or raised markings on control knobs
Use colored tapes, puffy paint, glue, or stick-on “bumps” to create raised markings for standard settings on appliances, faucets, and other frequently used items. A combination of color coding and raised tactile markings works best. Knobs that click will give auditory cues to their settings — one click is high, two is medium, etc.
Locate the kitchen sink at a 45 degree angle in the corner of the kitchen
Ideally with clear floor space below, low enough (30-32 inches from the floor) so the sink and faucet are within easy reach of someone who is seated. Mounting the faucet at the side makes it easier to reach for someone in a seated position, and for children.
Attach a sonic boom alarm clock with bed shaker
Attach to a lamp and you will not forget what you are cooking. The lamp flashes, the bed shaker pulses, and a 98 decibel audible alarm sounds. One or any combination will get the attention of someone who is deaf, hard of hearing, or who tends to forget they were cooking.
Available from UniversaLink/Center for Communication, Hearing, and Deafness
10243 W. National Ave.
West Allis, WI 53227;
Call 414-541-5465, 800-755-7994; VP 866-954-9435; TTY 414-604-7217.
Install no-touch motion sensor faucets
They turn on and off automatically either when you place your hands under the faucet. These faucets are nice for those who have trouble gripping and turning but also for those who tend to forget to turn the water off. Inexpensive adapters are readily available at home improvement stores or online that fit most existing faucets.
Install LED task lighting under all upper cabinets
It will light the work space without shining in your eyes. Consider a row of “chaser lights” around any peninsulas or islands so they can be easily seen in low light.
Place frequently used or heavy items in lower cabinets
Consider adding pullout landing boards or spring-assisted shelving to help raise heavy items.
Store dishes vertically within easy reach
Instead of stacking heavy dishes, stand them on end. (Do the same with baking sheets and pans.) You can purchase cabinets with this feature or create your own by adding small dowels to existing cabinets. Inexpensive, ready-made inserts may be found at discount stores or mail order catalogs. To make access to dishes even easier, move them to a lower cabinet that is easier to reach and consider removing doors to this heavily used area.
Shelley Peterman-Schwarz began her work at to share what she has learned about how to live a full life despite the challenges of living with a chronic disabling illness. The website contains her blog “What I learn about LIVING from my chronic illness” along with videos and DVDs where Shelley welcomes you into her home and shares her everyday tips and strategies for living. It also includes her articles, product recommendations, and the signup for her free monthly newsletter. Shelley’s newest book in the Tips for Making Life Easier™ series, is Home Accessibility: 300 Tips for Making Life Easier™, affordable solutions to make your home safer and more accessible, was scheduled to be published in January 2012. She can be reached by email at:  
(Last reviewed 3/2012)