Not Just for Wheelchairs: A Resource Guide to Universal Design

Philosophy Behind Universal Design

Universal design is a concept which has been growing in popularity since the late 1990s. It is a design philosophy encouraging the design of spaces and product features that are accessible to everyone. Traditional "handicapped accessible" spaces and adaptive technology are the cause of the principals of this design philosophy.  Oftentimes, this limits the functional range of spaces and devices and is almost universally aesthetically unpleasant. This 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 with levers rather than with knobs to open are more suitable for those who have issues with grip. While 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 and wide make it possible for persons with mobility impairments to access a space without ramps. This provides easier entry to parents of young children in strollers, and ease the transfer of furniture and appliances.
  • Linear building layouts offer clear line of sight which assists people who have communication difficulty. Conncurrently facilitating improved lighting, which is beneficial to everyone, especially those with vision difficulty.

 Examples of Universal Design in Products

  • "Rocker" light switches offer simplified operation and allows basic access to people with fine motor difficulties.
  • 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 this is so basic that it is nearly effortless to incorporate into new home construction. Certain elements of design are being encouraged through tax incentives, or mandated by law. Homes built with design principals need not be modified as highly. If and when their occupant's range of physical abilities change, and modification becomes necessary, they are better equipped. For instance, many universally designed homes feature walls built with wider beams, allowing 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.

History of Universal Design

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 to obtain an MFA in industrial design. He began working to merge aesthetic and functional design 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. This concept was 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 design.

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

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