What To Look For In An Apartment If I Am Disabled

Living with a disability to your physical health is a tough thing to deal with, especially if you are renting an apartment or condo instead of owning your own home. 

Dealing with steps, elevators, parking lots, and just the accessibility of all the other conveniences of life are no longer taken as givens, but something to be legitimately concerned with on a daily basis.  

There are some things you want to keep aware of as you look for an apartment if you have a disability.  In this article, we are going to focus on people with physical, rather than mental disabilities, as while some of the accessibility traits do overlap, it is the straight physical accessibility options we are going to be focusing on, as these are the most common. 

Apartment Complexes Do NOT Need To Have ADA Units

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed almost 30 years ago.  Many people think that this means that all apartment complexes by now would have handicapped or handicapped accessible units that would be mandated by the government.   

This is not the case. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the property of the apartment complex, but not the actual dwelling.   This means that there needs to be a handicapped parking space outside the leasing office, a ramp to get up to the office, and so on.  This does not mean that the actual unit that you would be renting is going to necessarily be “handicapped accessible”.  

The ADA act applies to public accommodations, such as hotels and the like, but not private rental dwellings.   

However, any ground level unit in an apartment building with an elevator must be able to be modified to turn it into a handicapped accessible unit.  This means reinforced walls in the bathroom, ramps outside, wide enough doorways, and the ability to install grab bars at places throughout the unit if needed. 

This is something that is mandated by federal law, and you are well within your rights to ask for these modifications be made in these types of dwellings. That’s what they were built for. 

What IS a Handicapped Apartment?

A handicapped apartment can be very hard to find.  Outside the more care-centric facilities that design their apartments to market to just such individuals, there is little-to-no incentive for common apartment complexes to modify their existing structure to accommodate this potential occurrence. 

The market is small and after the modification undertaken at no little expense, the unit is then only tied to the occupant for as long as the lease is signed.

You are much more likely to find a handicapped-accessible unit in new construction, as it is easier to reinforce the walls for bracing and modify features in the apartment when new construction is being done as opposed to when it is already in place.  Laws also mandate, in certain circumstances, that these modifications be made in advance should the apartment need to be converted to a handicapped-accessible dwelling.

Regardless, it is completely possible to convert virtually any unit into a handicapped accessible unit, depending on the type of disability you are wanting to accommodate.  While some disabilities may require a large amount of work to be done to ensure safety and usability, there are many units that would be ready to be modified to make it more livable. 

Features That Make An Apartment Handicap Accessible

Here are some of the basic features you either want to look for in a handicapped-accessible apartment or request the work be done to the apartment to make it livable for the person with the disability. 

Wheelchair Ramps

These simple things are what is going to allow you to access your building.  If you are elderly or have an impediment that impedes your ability to walk, you need to find a unit in a building that has a ramp-up to the door of the building from the sidewalk.  

Many times, these ramps will be mandated by building code on at least some of the newer constructed facilities.  And as mentioned above, any apartment complex that has been built after 1991, which also has an elevator in it, must have rooms that are built specifically to be modified if a handicapped person wants to move in. 

Flat Thresholds

Not having a noticeable transition between the hallways and the unit is going to be crucial for anyone in a wheelchair, scooter, or walker.  This makes it easy for the person to go from one part of the apartment to the other without a potential pitfall if the carpet or flooring is at two different levels with a strip in-between. 

In the same way, the transitions in the apartment need to be flat.  Many times, there are different types of flooring in an apartment. Going from tile or vinyl in the bathrooms and kitchen to carpet or laminate in the living rooms and bedrooms.  These flooring can be different thicknesses, so you want to ensure that going between rooms isn’t going to pose a problem to the occupant. 

Bath And Shower Accommodations

Using the actual facilities can be one of the most challenging actions for a person with a disability.   If the person is unable to physically lower and then pull themselves up out of a standard tub or bath by themselves, then something different needs to be installed. 

Normally, a stand-up or handicapped accessible bath is installed for cases like this.  It is essentially a walk-in, walk-out tub that fills when the occupant is in it and drains before they get out.   It allows the person to bathe without having to lay completely prone in the bath. 

Additionally, the walls by the bath and toilet need to be reinforced.  This is done so that grab bars can be installed next to both. If there is just plaster or drywall, there will not be enough support to hold a person.  

The flooring in the bathroom may also need to be modified to ensure that undue slipping does not occur. 

Wide Enough Doors

This may seem like a trivial thing, but both walkers and wheelchairs can be much wider than you realize.  If you can’t get one or both of these through the door to the apartment, then there is no use renting it.  Make sure the door hinges are the type you need to ensure plenty of swing-room for the door, and that the door itself is wide enough to accommodate you. 

Cabinets and Sinks

There are many instances where a disabled person is not able to reach the top shelves for the cabinets or even use a regular sink.  Sometimes, a lowering of the level of the sinks and counters, as well as putting the cabinets and draws will make this accessible.  

This means literally having the counters and sinks at a much lower height than normal constructions typically account for.  However, this can mean all the difference between making an apartment functional or not for someone with a disability. 


This is something that can be easily overlooked.  If a person has a disability, they are going to have a more difficult time getting around.  If something unfortunate happens to them in their apartment, like they slip and fall, how are they going to communicate to someone that they need help? 

Some people use systems like “Life-Alert” that sends a signal out to a third-party service that sends help immediately.  Other systems work similarly to this, but simply notify people or the management of the complex via a loud noise or automated call to the office. 

No matter what system you choose, it can be a crucial feature if you are disabled to have this security feature installed. 

Handicapped accessible apartments are not as common as you would think, but these features, some of which are mandated by law, and some of which you need to look for yourself, is going to mean the difference in having a good quality of life in an apartment. 

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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