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:

  • “Rocker” type light switches, which offer simplified operation to everyone, and allow basic access to people with fine motor difficulties, or who use reaching tools.
  • The Cuisinart brand food processor is among the most famous devices incorporating universal design principals, and features large controls with large, clear labels that reduce complexity in the kitchen, while facilitating operation by people with fine motor difficulties.

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:

  • Senior Dwelling An audio discussion from NPR on building and choosing homes that are fit to grow old in. Site also includes a written companion story.
  • The Center For Universal Design Providing a list of news items, publications, and programs which target universal design themes.
  • Universal Design Resources A list of resources for those interested in purchasing or building a universally designed home, including links to sources for plans, books, and more.
  • Universal Design Showers This article looks at how to create a shower that is accessible and usable to a broad range of people.
  • Universal Design Kitchen Cabinet This article advises on universal design for kitchen cabinets.
  • Universal Design Kitchen Tips This GE pictorial illustrates how space can accommodate adjustable appliances in a universally-designed kitchen.
  • All-Generation Home Guide (PDF document) This four-page guide to homes that fit all generations can be printed and carried while shopping for appliances or housing.
  • What Is Universal Design? This 2-page PBS primer gives a crash course in making homes more accommodating.
  • Universal Design Living Laboratory Seeks to Break Barriers This article from an architecture industry publication discusses a home built by an architect who uses a wheelchair. Other architects and home shoppers are invited to tour the home to learn about proper universal design.
  • The Northwest Universal Design Council This site contains a large collection of information for home builders and buyers, including a checklist, and highlights on trouble spots to watch out for in virtually every room in a home.
  • Aging in Place, Gracefully, With Universal Design This article includes sections addressing resale values, cutting costs, and paying for universally designed homes.
  • Not Just for Wheelchairs: A Resource Guide to Universal Design This website outlines the universal design program of Ohio State University, and includes a number of video case studies illustrating the spaces that the program has worked with.
  • Bringing Égalité Home This New York Times article tells the story of one man’s adventure in rebuilding a 20-year old home to incorporate universal design principals
  • The Concept of Universal Design This article illustrates the distinction between universal design, and accessible design.
  • Aging in Place and Universal Design Resources This PDF document from the California Department of Housing and Community Development is a list of national-level resources for people looking for assistance with remaining in their homes as they age.
  • Designed for Life Montgomery This website showcases model homes built in Montgomery County, Maryland.
  • WELLcome Home This site from Ball State University provides several exhaustive studies of universal design considerations in the home. A must for designers and builders.
  • Living Laboratory This site chronicles one woman’s efforts to build a home to accommodate her disability as well as her family’s needs.
  • Institute for Human Centered Design This Boston-based Non-Governmental Organization seeks to advance the concept of universal design globally.
  • Home Repair and Universal Deisgn An article from AARP that offers tips on universal design considerations in home repair.
  • Universal and Green Article from Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine looking at merging green technology with universal design.
  • Homebuying Guide: Guide from New Horizons Unlimited, which includes tips on design, remodeling, and working with contractors.

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