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Hosting this Christmas? How to accommodate all accessibility needs, by Vaila Morrison RIBA

Vaila Morrison RIBA, our resident Inclusive Design Expert

Our insightful Inclusive Design expert, Vaila Morrison RIBA, shares her tips for ensuring loved ones with accessibility requirements feel catered for – from easing your guest’s journey into the home, to making Christmas dinner as stress-free as possible. 

After a challenging few years, I know that many of us are especially looking forward to spending some precious Christmassy time with our family and friends. However, it can sometimes be tricky for disabled and / or older people visiting other loved ones’ homes. If you’d love to host a relative or friend with specific needs then follow my tips on accommodating them so no-one misses out on the festive fun.  

The problem is that most houses weren’t built with accessibility in mind. So, many homes lack certain key features which can be problematic for visitors. That said, there are often ways that you can improve accessibility… even a few small changes can make a big difference, ensuring your guests feel welcome and comfortable. They will also feel touched that their host is mindful of their needs, relieving any anxiety.  

 Getting inside

Firstly, if your guest has mobility impairments, make sure they can park close to the house – perhaps having a priority spot on the driveway, if you have one.  

If your home has more than one entrance, consider which is easiest to access. The backdoor may be most sensible if it has a step-free route. Most importantly, be on-hand to help support your visitor up over any obstacles if they need it. 

Once indoors, it’s always great to have a bit of space (if you can create it) to greet each other, manoeuvre around and remove coats (and scarves, hats and gloves at this chilly time of year!). A chair or bench may be helpful to some, particularly if they are going to be changing shoes. 

Clutter

This may seem a big ask at Christmas time but try to avoid too much clutter around the home, especially anything that could block circulation routes or be a trip hazard. Loose rugs that are raised at the edges can be hazardous and prove tricky to walk on with a stick or roll over with wheels. If you have one, you could arrange furniture so that corners and edges aren’t so exposed, use carpet tape or buy an anti-slip mat to go under the rug. 

Good lighting can help people to orientate themselves, particularly in an unfamiliar space. Too many sparkly and twinkly things can be overwhelming, so try not to go overboard with the fairy lights! 

Furniture

As well as ensuring hallways and corridors easily accessible, look around the rooms your guest will be using. Sense-check that there are clear routes for anyone with a wheelchair or walking aids. This may mean moving coffee tables out of the way to provide turning circles or space for manoeuvring with crutches.   

However, in some instances furniture can be a big help.  Sturdy tables and dressers, the backs of sofas and chairs can provide something reassuring to hold onto.   

Low sofas can be difficult to get in and out of, so if you do have a higher sofa or armchair (ideally with a higher back and armrests) ensure it’s easy to access and invite your guest to sit there. 

If your loved one uses a walking stick or crutches, think about where they might be able put them when not in use, within easy reach but without causing other people to trip over them. I love the idea of a stylish umbrella stand, as suggested here by Wheel Chic Home.  

Don’t forget to make some small tables available within reach of an armchair or sofa for your guest to pop their mulled wine and mince pie! 

Bathroom

If you have a downstairs bathroom, ensure it’s easy to get to, well-lit and decluttered.  

Depending on the needs of your guest and the layout and surface finishes in your room, it may be possible to add some temporary suction mounted grab rails.   

For overnight guests, a bath or shower mat is a really helpful and easy addition to make slippery surfaces more stable.   

Overnight guests

If you have a loved one staying over, clear the room of any excess clutter and maximise the amount of circulation space around the bed for those with limited mobility. 

The addition of a dining height chair may be welcome for sitting down while dressing and undressing. Clear the top of a box or dressing table as somewhere to set bags or cases at a tabletop height for guests who find bending to the floor difficult. 

Easy-to-operate bedside lights are essential. Ideally you will leave a night light on to guide the way to the bathroom. Or, if your guest is likely to become disorientated, it may be wise to leave the bathroom light on during the night. 

If your bedrooms are all on the upper level and your guest(s) cannot manage the stairs, there still may be options for having them to stay. It may mean compromising on space, but if you can dedicate a specific room for the duration of their time with you, perhaps a living room or dining room separate from the other communal spaces could be reorganised to create a temporary bedroom for your guest. A study would be ideal. Just refocus socialising into the kitchen and any other communal room while they are staying with you. 

If you cannot manage a dedicated room, a good quality sofa bed or daybed will do. To ensure your guest doesn’t feel too exposed, ask other family members not to disturb them in the morning until they are ready for company. If they are sleeping in a communal room, it would also be great to try to identify somewhere that they could keep their belongings so that they can access them without feeling they are in full view or in the way of everyone. 

Sensory needs

I’ve mentioned trying to provide good lighting to make things easier for those with visual impairments, so let’s touch on ways to support loved ones with hearing difficulties. For example, too much background noise can make following conversations difficult (especially for people who wear hearing aids) and lots of hard surfaces can amplify this. Soft furnishings and accessories can really help to temper this echoey effect. 

Christmas dinner

I don’t know about you, but my family can’t wait to be able to get around the table to have a meal together. 

If your guest is a wheelchair user, set their place at the table where there isn’t a table leg or support strut that could impede their access. Using contrasting coloured crockery and serving dishes can be very helpful.  If you have plain white crockery, opt for a nice bold red or deep green tablecloth to help the plates and dishes of food stand out on the table. Stylish and festive!  

Go out for a meal

Much as we would love to host the whole family, sometimes it’s just not possible without making major adaptations to our homes…. and that’s okay! If you live in an upper floor flat and there is no lift, or if your only toilet is upstairs, it just might not be feasible to host some guests.   

It’s far better to acknowledge when you know your home can’t meet someone’s access needs. It may come as a relief to your relative or friend not to have to turn an unsuitable invitation down. Knowing you are being thoughtful about their needs will likely be much appreciated. Alternatively, suggesting that you could come to them, or perhaps that you could find a nice accessible venue for a family meal together, might be the easier solution all round… And that way there’s no washing up for any of you! Keep on supporting your loved ones and keep on being you. 

Vaila Morrison RIBA is an inclusive design champion. Her tips for future-proofing your home without compromising on style and mastering ‘Inclusive Chic’ are well worth a read.  

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