When fate put me on wheels in 2000, it did nothing to change the appetites of my husband and son. We had just moved into a custom “forever” home on a ranch far from fast food and delivery. I cooked and cursed my unforgiving, existing kitchen for 10 years before implementing the “perfect wheelchair kitchen plan.”
Today, with a few years of “perfection” under my belt, I am forced to admit I spent thousands in perfectly good cash on stuff that sounded good. Meanwhile, I am getting big bang for the buck on ideas that cost under $50.
Don’t get me wrong, my small kitchen is packed with ideas that make it easier for me to put food on the table. But you can take a gourmet cruise by not doing some of what I did. Help yourself!
The Good, The Bad and The Expensive
Fortunately, I “accidentally” did several things right in the original kitchen before my accident:
First, the wall oven was exactly lap-height for my wheelchair — making it easy to use (except for reaching across the door) and providing an additional work surface. Unfortunately, the built-in microwave above it was now in no-man’s land — and I microwave lots!
Second, the Instant Hot boiling water dispenser was a lifesaver once I was in a chair. Do this for about $125 and use it every day for all those recipes and drinks that use boiling water.
Third, the decorative high toe kick and storage under my cook top rendered it virtually roll under. Brilliant! It was also a bonus that the vent system was not overhead and out of reach and the burner controls were all on the front. In a super cheap conversion, my brother pried off a front panel, added a hinge and created a safe stirring spot so I can see into pans while adding ingredients. He also cut a simple plywood “cover” for a drawer that’s another great lower work surface. Sadly, the “cute” plate racks, spice cubby and cookbook storage above the range no longer serve a useful purpose.
Fourth, storage! The fold-out pantry that drove my builder nuts when I made him a paper model has been great! It literally brings items out to me that I could never reach from a wheelchair. I saw a wire model of the door shelving for $23 on Amazon.com this week. You’ll never regret dollars spent on accessing your stuff. I put my appliance “garage” in the same category. I hide a mixer, toaster, panini grill, waffle iron, etc., there. Love appliances, but they are heavy and I only have to slide them in and out of the garage instead of lifting them out of a cabinet. And on the other side, a cookbook niche at counter height has also been a reachable boon.
Fifth, the counter depth fridge-freezer combo gave me precious inches in turning radius and made it possible to reach the back of most shelves.
On the downside, the original bar height peninsula towered over my head, turning the kitchen into my personal kennel with only one access point easily blocked by large dogs. I strained to reach across the sink to turn water off and on. I rammed the dishwasher door constantly during loading and unloading.
Dream to Reality
So I began saving money and ideas for a dream remodel and much of it works just like I’d hoped.
The peninsula gave way to an island that’s just a smidge below counter height. A big reason it works for me is the apron front sink set into the granite another inch lower. It’s such a great height that I do nearly all my chopping right there, thanks to knee and toe space built in. As for placement of the island, my patient builder helped me create a cardboard model that I could roll in, out and around for a week to make sure I was getting every inch I needed, where I needed it. The adjustments we made were critical and much cheaper in the cardboard stage. I even found room to put narrow storage on the back side of the island for things like vases, candles and cups that someone was always having to reach for me.
One of my best investments was a touch faucet. I chose a model with a separate control which I had installed on the side of the sink so I don’t have to reach across to adjust the flow. It cost about $100 more than a regular faucet with pull out sprayer but pays for itself every time I get water without straining or touching a handle with dirty hands.
After my demolition derby with the old dishwasher’s “drawbridge” door, I was easily convinced that a dishdrawer was the way to go (and my lower island wouldn’t accommodate a regular height dishwasher). Oops — the dishdrawer was expensive and I don’t think I’ve used it more than five times. It seems to take forever to do a load of dishes. It’s too small for the dishes from a big dinner and it still takes two to three days to fill it from regular meals. Honestly, it’s a $900-plus storage space and I wash dishes by hand. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. On the other hand, I’ve never run into it.
I keep a plate rack on the island so plates can go right from the sink or dishdrawer to an easy-to-reach spot. I learned the hard way that carrying a stack of plates across the kitchen on my lap was not workable.
I loved the height of my original wall oven but desperately wanted a built-in microwave instead of the small countertop model I bought as an interim step. When I read about the G.E. Advantium combination convection oven/microwave, I thought my prayers were answered. I rationalized the $1,300 price and I do use it constantly, but I wasn’t thrilled with the baking results, so a countertop toaster-oven now sits where the countertop microwave used to be. The combo-oven door is still a great work space in my “transformer” kitchen. And I admit I’m learning how to get better baking results. I’ve even cooked several Thanksgiving dinners in it — alternating between convection and microwave. And I captured more accessible storage in the spot where the old built-in microwave used to be.
Two afterthoughts turned out to be highlights of the kitchen remodel. I originally had fluorescent undercounter lighting. It was acceptable from a standing position but blinding at wheelchair height. I hated it without really knowing why. While I was doing errands during the remodel, I grabbed three halogen light bars and some wire pull-out shelves. I don’t think a single item was over $50. But the benefits have been amazing. The directional lighting actually lights the countertop without causing headaches. And the pull-out shelves mean I can get to everything in the shelves rather than just what’s in front. If I was building from scratch, I would probably install wooden pull-outs as I tend to catch things in the wire openings, but it’s a minor inconvenience and I’m able to store some narrow items in the space between the tracks and the shelves.
So my scorecard is this: New island with farm/apron sink and touch faucet — Home Run! Dishdrawer — not so much. Combination convection-microwave — growing on me. Extra storage where old microwave was — always needed. And by the way, I ordered the dishdrawer and farm sink on Amazon and Overstock.com after checking out floor models in box stores. And I read about a million reviews of the Advantium Oven online, ignoring the mixed reviews from owners and Consumer Reports. Shame on me, but I was redeemed by points for pull-out storage and better lighting.
My remodel took five long weeks and totaled about $23,000 thanks to the touchy demolition of the original peninsula and the need to move some plumbing and drains in positioning the island. The flow around the island means the new kitchen lives much larger, although I may have actually gained only about 8 inches in floor space. Everyone comments how much more open the Great Room is now.
In reality, the most functional parts of the kitchen could be created for about $5,000 in a kitchen with good flow. I’d advise putting water works first! The touch faucet, Instant Hot and a good dishwasher are important. Then look at fire. You’ll need to ask yourself whether the microwave, oven or stovetop gets used most at your house and what’s safe for you. In my case, lifting hot food out of a typical oven-below-stovetop combination just wasn’t an option. I had to have a wall oven.
Finally, storage and surfaces make all the difference in “doing it yourself.” I hardly use my countertops, but have doors, drawers, panels and ledges that provide countless surfaces at heights that work for me when I’m working on dinner. Armed with my handy reacher, I can lift lightweight plastic and anything with handles out of higher cabinets. Everything else lives low and preferably slides or swings out to me when I need it.