Cooking with a Physical Disability

For those with a permanent or temporary physical disability involving mobility impairment, cooking can present challenges as well as opportunities for creative problem solving. Not all disabilities or people are the same, but some of the common issues include limitations in standing, reaching, or using one side of the body.

When reader haipanda requested a post about cooking with physical disabilities, I realized I had never given much thought to this subject. Yet I was intrigued and after a week of research and talking to a group of experienced individuals, it became clear that this is a rich topic for discussion. Below are some tips for cooks and their friends and families, provided by two cooks with physical disabilities, a family member, an occupational therapist, and a chef who works with a non-profit. Many of these are helpful suggestions for any cook, not just those with a disability.

Please share your own experiences and solutions in the comments!

Strategies

Plan ahead: While planning saves time, money and hassle for every home cook, it is crucial for those with disabilities. An accident like a broken glass or missing ingredient might leave a disabled person without anything to eat. Make careful shopping lists, and build leeway into your cooking schedule. Work with small quantities, saving bulk cooking for days you have help. Always keep food on hand for days you don't feel up to cooking. – Hannah Katsman

Break it down: Look at whatever you want to cook and break it down. For example, plan to hit the refrigerator once instead of 10 times throughout the process of making a dish. Have everything ready before you start cooking. – Cat Holden

De-clutter: Storing too many things together makes it physically difficult to get to what you need, especially when heavy items are stored. Roll out trays, smart storage at convenient heights, and a de-cluttered kitchen will help make work in the kitchen more efficient and pleasant. Rearrange, throw out and generally reduce and organize food and other items so that access is greatly enhanced. – Susan Serra

Rest if needed: Fatigue can be an issue, so take frequent breaks and keep a chair or stool nearby in case you need to sit down. – Cat Holden

Appreciate the process: Cooking food can be therapy for the soul. If you have limited motor skills, it might affect how "perfectly" you can cut an onion or roll out sushi, but enjoying the tactile experience, using your senses – that in itself is just as important as the end product. – Rodelio Aglibot

Kitchen Design

Countertop height: If you're in a wheelchair, lowering counters is good. If you have the funds, having a counter that can go up and down would be wonderful. Having a small table on wheels as a working surface can also work. – Nicolas Steenhout

Countertop material: Easy clean, smooth, surfaces and clean lines throughout the kitchen help the cleaning process, for a healthier kitchen. Engineered stone such as Silestone provides ease of maintenance. – Susan Serra

Appliances: I like any appliances that have good lighting and easy access into the appliance. Lighting around appliance knobs, large letters and numbers and smooth, rounded corners are preferred. Look for handles and doors that are easy to use and open. For ovens, look for easy roll out shelves. – Susan Serra

Lighting: Add adequate lighting overhead and task lighting if necessary. – Susan Serra

Hardware: Replace hardware for better access – small knobs can be difficult to use. Pulls can often be a better solution. – Susan Serra

Faucets: A faucet that is hands free or electronic touch is very welcome for many people as it is a simple touch to turn on and off. – Susan Serra

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Kitchen Tools

Adaptive equipment: Many people don't even know about the range of adaptive tools that exist. For example, there are cutting boards with a spear that help you secure the food, rocker knives, silverware with built-up handles, and more. Check medical supply stores and catalogs or talk to an occupational therapist, who can be a great resource.

Push cart: A push cart on wheels, like the kind you can get at Target or Home Depot, is a good secret weapon. You can use it if you have difficulty carrying foods, and it's easy to slide from the fridge to the counter or stove. – Cat Holden

Cutting boards:

If you cannot stand, I recommend using a cutting board on your lap. Some people put a cushion under the board. – Nicolas Steenhout

In a wheelchair, it is almost impossible to get up close enough to the typical counter because your feet will be blocked by the cabinets below. I wound up doing most of my food preparation on a pullout chopping board, sometimes even laying another board on top of it to try to extend the surface. – Mike Shirk

Hook on a stick: Because of the depth of the typical countertop, one of my most useful gadgets is a hook on the end of the pole. I use it to grab the blender, the breadmaker, the food processor, the toaster, pull pots and pans out from under the stove with the space – you get the idea. – Mike Shirk

Pastry cutter: My fingers are too weak to use a conventional knife for chopping, so I use a pastry cutter for that purpose. What it lacks in sharpness I make up for with better leverage. – Mike Shirk

Disposable gloves: Some have mentioned a worry about hygiene, having to handle wheelchair wheels then food. From the health and hygiene point of view, disposable gloves are wonderful. – Nicolas Steenhout

Advice for family members and friends

Respect: When someone has a disability it's tempting to jump in and take over. Respect the autonomy of the disabled person. Think about the tasks that might be difficult and offer to help in a few specific ways. For instance, if you are going shopping offer to pick up some things or to take the person along. If budget allows, consider paid help or gadgets. Community services or volunteer organizations may offer assistance. Figuring out the best strategies is often a matter of trial and error.
Finally, we must always keep in mind to treat people with physical disabilities as capable adults. Respect their choices, privacy and desire for independence. – Hannah Katsman

Empower: Many times a person with a physical disability can still participate in cooking. Empower them to be included in the task. Even if they can't stand at the stove to stir the spaghetti sauce, they might be able to chop the onions or measure ingredients. – Cat Holden

The Experts

Hannah Katsman is the author of Cooking Manager. When she was 12, her mother, an avid cook, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. "I believe she viewed her disability as a new cooking challenge," says Hannah. Read her Ten Tips for Cooking with a Disability or Injury.

Cat Holden is an occupational therapist at Sinai Hospital's RETURN! Brain Injury Community Re-Entry Program. She works with a wide variety of clients who have a physical and/or cognitive disability.

Susan Serra, CKD, CAPS, is President of kitchen/bath design firm Susan Serra Associates and is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. With her daughter Kelly, she writes the blog The Kitchen Designer.

Rodelio Aglibot is a chef and founding Board Member of In Chef's Hands, an organization that pairs chefs with food enthusiasts who have special needs, illness, physical limitations, or disabilities for a day of cooking together.

Nicolas Steenhout is the author of The Wheeling Gourmet. He went to cooking school at the Institut de Tourisme et d'Hotellerie du Qu├ębec and worked in restaurants including a Michelin starred restaurant in Belgium. He stopped working as a professional chef when he had to start using a wheelchair. Read his tips for Cooking with a Disability.

Mike Shirk is the author of Life! Disabled. When he retired on disability due to a rare muscular disease called Inclusion Body Myositis, Mike needed some activities to replace the things he could no longer do. He picked up watercolor painting and cooking. Read about his kitchen experiences.

Thank you, Hannah, Cat, Susan, Rodelio, Nicolas, and Mike!

Related: Accessible Kitchen Design in the New York Times

(Images: Snaidero Skyline Lab Kitchen by Lucci Orlandini Design)

It's Reader Request Week at The Kitchn! This post was requested by haipanda.