By Diane Huberty, Retired RN, Certified Neuro Nurse
...and ALS Patient
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 desks 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
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
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.
2 Bookshelves (or 1 bookshelf and one cabinet)
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 than 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.
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.
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
We assembled the first bookshelf according to the directions. Next, we measured the height
needed for the desk top. This took a little calculating.
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 underside of the notched end of the desktop
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.)
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. 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.