Utilizing Universal Design Principles to create an Accessible Deck

I don’t know about you but I like to be able to sit outside on my deck or porch and enjoy the weather while my wife likes to work outside in the garden. I do not foresee that changing anytime in the future, nor do most individuals with disabilities want to be cooped up inside. So how do you design an accessible entrance that looks good while still allowing one to enjoy the outside, maybe light up the grill, or even possibly tending to a garden if they are confined to a wheelchair or have some other type of disability?

When one researches Universal Design or Accessible Design, you will find very little mentioned about the exterior of the house. Occasionally you might see something about adequate exterior lighting, door thresholds, and/or slope measurements, but that seems to be about it. Well in this article, we will be addressing the addition of an accessible deck to a house.

 The research & planning phase

The first thing you need to do is to start figuring out how you would like to use your deck. The term “Universal Design” can be a misleading concept during the planning phase. Not all decks will be designed and built with the same needs in mind. For example; many people enjoy grilling on their deck; they want an area to sit around a table and play games; they may have a spa that they want to enjoy; they enjoy gardening and want an area for containerized planters that they can grow vegetables, flowers, or herbs; or almost any combination of the above.

A few other items that require some research and consideration; Are there any easements or zoning concerns that apply? Is there a septic tank nearby or other utilities running under or above the ideal location of the deck? If there is an AC unit in the area that will need to be relocated or replaced? If someone is disabled, what is the best way for them access to the deck and is there other considerations we need to make if the situation gets worse? Is there a secondary means for everyone to get off the deck in case of an emergency like a fire?

Code Basics

Every deck built needs to meet your local code at a minimum. The best place to find out which codes apply in your area is to ask the local Building Inspection Department or Agency. Some codes that will come into play are the use of handrails, handrail height, baluster spacing, the depth and size of the footings, size of the landings, etc… Most professional deck builder’s use the Fairfax Virginia Deck Building Code and the DCA6 brochure from the American Wood Council, which is currently considered by most as the gold standard.

A Ramp, or Oversized Steps (landing platform)?

A ramp is always better, right – so what is there to discuss? Well, for some individuals with certain disabilities or those with certain diseases a ramp is the last thing you would want to install or specify. In other cases, there might not be enough room for a ramp, or the length would be too much. In whichever case the minimum width we recommend would be 4 feet wide to allow people to pass and have adequate room for necessary handrails. While the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities is designed mainly for Commercial and Government buildings, the information is highly relevant to Residential Construction


If a person is or may maybe confined to a wheelchair, a ramp or in some cases a wheelchair lift is the only way to go. Many code jurisdictions do not specify what slope may be used on residential structures but, the maximum slope we will use is what is called a 1:12 slope (1 inch rise for every 12  inches of run), while we prefer a 1:20 slope. Some designers will say the slope can be as steep as a 1:8. While a motorized scooter or electric wheelchair can easily handle that slope, it is harder for those with an old-fashioned wheelchair to make it up or to lose control while descending. A ramp should have a 2″ lip on the sides to prevent a wheelchair from accidentally rolling off the side and in many areas require adequate handrails for the whole length. Generally, a ramp should not exceed 15′ in length or change directions without the use of a 5′ by 5′ landing platform to rest and maneuver on.

Landing Platforms / Oversized Steps:

Normal stair risers should never be more than 7 1/2 inches tall, while the width or depth of the tread should be no smaller than 11 inches wide. In many cases, a 4′ deep tread aka Landing Platform is optimal for those with balance or sight issues. Adding a visual indicator to the edge of the stairs is also highly recommended.

Material Choices

For safety purposes, ease of maintenance and aesthesis there are many benefits to choosing a composite decking material like Correct Deck CX with hidden fasteners over a traditional wood material. While a composite decking product will expand and contract, it will not warp and is generally more stable than wood. Composites also do not soak in water as much as wood does, therefore, the surfaces of composite materials are often more slip resistant and consistent. You also have the nice benefit of having a product that does not require yearly staining and major maintenance tasks.

When price is a major factor than you will most likely be looking at using regular pressure treated wood for the decking. When it comes to ramps, we would point you to specialty product called Skid Guard®, instead of regular PT plywood simply painted with a skid resistant paint.

No matter which material is selected, the deck boards should be oriented perpendicular to the direction of traffic on the ramp or stairs as to provide additional traction. One should also pay extra attention to the hard edges at the base and any landings to help eliminate possible trip hazard. One method is to use concrete for the first 8-12 inches of the ramp, which provides a smoother transition. One needs to make sure that the there is no slope side to side, to help prevent someone from rolling into the edge of the ramp.

Other Options Worthy of Consideration

Once all the needs and requirements are met, innovation and aesthetics can come into play, which should help turn a successful project, into an outstanding outdoor living area that allows everyone to enjoy it. Consider installing low voltage lighting in the stair treads or on the posts to not only increase safety at transition points but to accent these areas and adding to the ambiance.  Consider installing a bench by the doorways, not only does this give your guests a place to relax, but a nice place to put groceries or other items down while hunting for the keys to the door.  By adding a planter or two that matches the deck materials at wheelchair height, allows for flowers, vegetables, or herbs to be grown on a deck while adding a nice focal point.

  • Amanda

    I think this article made some interesting points, I read a textbook directly related to this topic, its called Contracts: Cases and Materials by , I found my used copy for less than the bookstores at