ALS From Both Sides

The Right Computer Desk

The first thought in computer access for the disabled is usually about finding hardware and software, but accessibility has to begin with even more basic problem solving: Finding a desk that will allow you to use your computer!

My computer has been at the center of my life ever since ALS began affecting my mobility.  I practically live at my desk, and my computer center has undergone several changes over the years as my strength deteriorated.  None of the available computer desk seemed to work -- too low to get my wheelchair under, too small a tray to rest my arms on, etc.  After adding blocks to raise it, and trying various trays for keyboard and mouse, bringing in stray pieces of furniture to put peripherals on, I finally had a computer center that worked.  But ... it looked just like the make-do conglomeration of parts that it was.

I finally had enough of crappy looking "desks" and set out to find a workable, adaptable, computer work center that looked like furniture. After a lot of measuring, planning, and shopping, I decided to use Sauder assemble-it-yourself furniture and a little bit of ingenuity to create the computer center I wanted.  Convincing my husband that my ideas would work (especially the part about sawing a bookshelf in half!) took a bit, but he did it and I finally have a set-up that I consider ideal!  Not only is it functional for me, but it is also attractive. It is the desk I should have started out with because it is adaptable through many stages of disability. It has been with me through ever increasing arm, hand, trunk, and neck weakness, and onto a ventilator. It even followed me when the family room became my bedroom and the dining room became my space!

Then ..... and Now

desk 1 desk 2

The first requirement of a desk is support for weak arms. It AMAZES me that very, very few computer desks for wheelchair users have this feature! My arm support is cheap, easy to make, completely uncomplicated, and part of my desk itself. I use a piece of plywood with a deep cutout so that it wraps around my waist and extends far enough back to support my elbows. This tray slides out from under the desk top and rests on my wheelchair arm rests, providing support at just the right height for shoulder comfort. I have to rotate my wheelchair joystick to fit underneath, and then slide the tray out over me. At the time I designed this desk , I was still able to reach the tray and pull it out, as well as use the keyboard. I can't do either of those things now, but the pull out tray is easy for my caregivers. The wrap around me tray made it possible for me to use the keyboard much longer, and the mouse even now with minimal wrist strength.

I can also use the tray as a portable tray for my wheelchair. It is held onto my chair with two short bungee cords (the blue straps) that hook through two small holes drilled into the back edge of the tray and then down to hook on the wheelchair frame. It is a really inexpensive, quick to set up, roomy solution for computing anywhere I go, but requires assistance to set up even if you have arm strength.

wheelchair desk


2 Bookshelves (or 1 bookshelf and one cabinet)

Bookshelves Bookshelves

Any 30" wide bookshelf will work for the bookshelf end of the desk .  I chose one with doors on the bottom to hide clutter.  These are generally 16" deep.  If the overall length of the desk needs to be minimized, look for a plain bookshelf about 6 or8" deep.

I could not find a matching cabinet the right dimensions for the printer cabinet end.  All were either too low, or several inches wider that the desk top.  It was just as economical to buy a second bookshelf and cut it off at the right height. Again, if the overall length of the desk needs to be minimized, a shallow bookshelf will work to support the desk top, but probably won't be deep enough to serve as a printer cabinet.

printer cabinet

Desk top: 30"x70" sheet of 3/4" plywood.

The length can be adjusted to fit the available space, but must remain long enough to accommodate the oversized keyboard tray and its brackets in the knee hole between the bookshelf and cabinet. Selecting birch or oak plywood will make it easier to stain the desk top to match the bookshelves. We added 3/4" quarter-round molding to finish the raw edges. The desk top is notched on one end to fit inside the bookshelf.

desk top

Keyboard tray  30"x32" sheet of 1/2" plywood.

The keyboard tray was cut to allow it to wrap around me. Use a large piece of cardboard to make a pattern. Make sure that the "armrest" section is long enough to completely support your elbows, not just your forearm.

The depth of the tray must be 30 inches: any less and you won't have room to work. Any more and it won't slide all the way under the desk which it has to be able to do if you use a power chair: You need to pull into your parking space, and then pull the tray out over your arm rests. You won't have enough toggle clearance to drive under an extended tray. I find I have to park, turn my chair control toggle a bit sideways so the toggle is lower than the armrest, then pull the tray out.

The width of the tray should be as wide as space allows.  It will be your working surface and the more room you have for mouse, keyboard, papers, call button, phone, a drink, etc., the better.


We assembled the first bookshelf according to the directions. Next we measured the height needed for the desk top. This took a little calculating.

desk height

First we measured the distance from the floor to top of my wheelchair arm rests. This is the height needed for the pull-out tray so that it rests on the arm rests. Next we added 5 more inches for depth of the tray and the space between the tray and the desk top. It needs to be high enough for the keyboard to fit easily under the desk when the tray is pushed in. (If the keyboard gets squeezed, Windows opens the Help menu over and over and over again!)

Now we laid out the pieces for the second bookshelf, cut the sides at the height we wanted the desk top, and assembled the cabinet.

The desk top and tray were cut from the sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. The length of the desk top can be adjusted to fit the available space but needs to be long enough to allow for adequate knee hole space.

Before going further, we set the pieces up to make sure they fit together and in the available space. We added a piece of 2x4 to the under side of the notched end of the desk top where it sat on the shelf of the bookcase to level it. (This shelf was not an adjustable one. An adjustable shelf would need to be securely attached.)

tray slides

After marking the under side of the desk top where the slide out tray was to go, we started on the tray mounts. Because we couldn't find metal drawer slides long enough for the big tray, we had to settle for wood runners. Dresser drawers made this way are terrible -- they stick and don't close evenly. However we were relieved to find that for a simple pull out tray this worked just fine. To make the tray runners we mounted 1x6 boards to the under side of the desk top with L brackets. Then we screwed 1x2's at right angles to that to make the edges the tray would sit on. To keep the tray level, we added a strip of 1x1 above the 1x2's to form a slot for the tray. We spaced them about 1 inch above the 1x2's to give the 3/4" tray plenty of room to slide without binding yet keep the tray fairly level as it was pulled out. We also waxed the sliding surfaces with an old candle to make the tray slide even more easily.

Finally we added the quarter round to the edges of the desk top and stained the desk top and tray to match the bookshelf.

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