Not Just for Wheelchairs: A Resource Guide to Universal Design

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Universal design is a concept which has been growing in popularity since the late 1990s. It is a design philosophy which encourages the design of spaces and product features that are accessible to people of every age and ability. The principals of this design philosophy are a reaction against traditional "handicapped accessible" spaces and adaptive technology, which often limited the functional range of spaces and devices, and was almost universally aesthetically unpleasant. Universal design is a ground-up philosophy which uses basic elements to create a world that can be shared by people of all abilities.

Some examples of universal design in spaces include:

  • Doors that are opened by levers rather than with knobs, which assist people who have problems with grip, while also easing operation for anyone carrying heavy or large objects. Such levers are commonly available in a wide variety of attractive styles.
  • Entryways that are flat (without stairs) and wide, which make it possible for persons with mobility impairments to access a space without needing a ramp, while providing dramatically easier entry to parents of young children in strollers, and ease the transfer of furniture and appliances.
  • Linear building layouts that offer clear lines of sight can assist people who have communication difficulty, while also facilitating improved lighting, which is beneficial to everyone, especially those with vision difficulty.

Examples of universal design in products include:

The philosophy behind universal design is so basic that it is nearly effortless to incorporate the principals into new home construction. So easy, that in some areas, certain elements of universal design are being encouraged through tax incentives, or mandated by law. Homes built with universal design principals need not me modified as highly if and when their occupant's range of physical abilities change, and when modification does become necessary, they are better equipped to handle such work. For instance, many universally designed homes feature walls built with wider beams, which allow solid mounting of grab-bars, and other wall-mounted devices without the need for extra reinforcement. This reduces costs that frequently fall to public programs including Medicare and Medicaid.

As a practice, universal design has its roots in 1947, when an 11 year old named Marc Harrison suffered a traumatic brain injury that required extensive therapy to help him re-learn basic functions. This event inspired Harrison, and as someone who had experienced a term of reduced physical ability, he received an MFA in industrial design, and began working to merge aesthetic and functional design considerations in a way that hadn't been previously considered.

Harrison is the person directly responsible for the design of the Cuisinart food processor, and up until his passing in 1998, continued to work on a project known as the Universal Kitchen, meant to improve the functionality of the kitchen space to reduce the amounts of bending, reaching, and twisting that is required by traditional designs. Harrison is considered to be the principal figure in the birth of modern universal design.

Please explore the following resources for more information on universal design in theory and practice:

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