Universal Design:  Accessibility for All
by Michelle Doty

It doesn't take but a few steps to realize the world is not designed to accommodate individuals of all abilities.  Being the mom of a child with multiple disabilities, I know this all too well.  Going to the store, a relative's house and even just a walk in the neighborhood can become an obstacle course.  Trying to navigate the environment can become a huge struggle for people with disabilities and their caregivers. 

However, there has been progress in making the environment accessible to all individuals since the civil rights movement.  One such concept is universal design.

What is Universal Design?

According to their website, the Universal Design Alliance (UDA) defines universal design as, "a user-friendly approach to design the living environment where people of any culture, age, size, weight, race, gender and ability can experience an environment that promotes their health, safety and welfare today and in the future."1  In addition, UDA explains the goal of universal design as, "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design."

There has been a considerable movement of state and federal regulations to make available barrier-free buildings.  The most recognizable federal legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), first passed in 1990.  The ADA is a law that was enacted to prevent discrimination based upon disability in areas such as employment, public accommodations and public transportation.  However, ADA regulations don't apply to private residences, meaning most homes are inaccessible.

Why Universal Design?

Much of the increased interest in universal design is due to the fact that people are living longer.  Also, people with disabilities of all ages are living at home instead of being institutionalized, as was commonplace in the past.  The increased public awareness of these growing populations has assisted in the promotion of universal design.  The motivation behind universal design is to allow people who are elderly or people with disabilities to live in their homes longer, preventing hospitalizations and allowing people to work from home.  For example, if a person with a disability becomes ill, he or she could potentially stay at home instead of going in the hospital if his home were accessible and his medical care could be provided at home.  Similarly a person with a disability could work from home, since telecommuting is becoming a trend in employment.  Reducing the need for long term care and hospitalizations is a huge benefit of universal design.

According to the Universal Design Alliance, the housing stock in the United States is built to accommodate the average twenty-five year old, six-foot tall male.2  In addition, the average home in the U.S. is over thirty years old.  People have often learned to adapt to their environments instead of adapting the environment to them.  The concept of universal design promotes the idea of creating an environment that will accommodate all types of people at various stages of life.

Principles of Universal Design

The principles of universal design were developed by a variety of professionals.  The group included architects, engineers, product designers and environmental design researchers.  The following are the principles that make up universal design:3

Principle one:  Equitable use 
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. 

Principle two:  Flexibility in use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. 

Principle three:  Simple and intuitive use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level. 

Principle four:  Perceptible information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

Principle five:  Tolerance for error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Principle six:  Low physical effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Principle seven:  Size and space for approach and use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility.

Need for Universal Design

Universal design is often focused on the aging population.  However, it is of equal concern to people with disabilities and their families.  It is also important to note that the average person will probably experience some sort of disability in his or her life.  While it may be a temporary situation, such as a broken leg or surgery, the ease of care during that time would be optimal in an environment that was constructed with the principles of universal design.

Some current living standards can prove to be dangerous and hazardous for individuals who are elderly or have a disability.  Narrow doorways, inaccessible bathrooms and steps into a home are just a few of the hot spots that are cause for concern.  Often, these dangerous conditions lead to injury or force an individual to have to move to a different residence.

Inaccessible bathrooms are a prime example potentially dangerous situation, especially for caregivers of people with disabilities.  If a parent of a child with special needs cannot safely get the child in and out of a shower/tub, it can create a lot of stress and anxiety.  Additionally, there is an increased risk of injury to both the child and parent, and the inability to provide appropriate hygiene and care is of great concern.

Some of the most common scenarios can raise rationale for universal design.  Besides the obvious obstacles due to having a disability or the increased needs due to aging, other issues make an argument for universal design. What if you have a friend or family member visit who uses a wheelchair, walker or cane?  We are all going to grow old one day and will want to live at home for as long as possible.  Universal design really does benefit all people.

Examples of Universal Design

There is a great deal of information regarding universal design ideas for a multitude of needs.  The following ideas are some of the more common aspects of universal design:
  • Larger width of doorways
  • Lever handles for doors, cabinets
  • Half bath on first floor
  • Zero step entrance to home
  • Handrails on both sides of the steps
  • Five feet of turnaround space in rooms
  • Light switches 36 inches from floor
  • Contrasting color to distinguish edges and visibility
  • Well-lit hallways, closets
  • Meaningful icons with text labels
  • Buttons/controls that can be distinguished by touch
  • Volume and speed control on auditory output

Is Universal Design Practical and Affordable?

When the ADA was passed, many architects and builders were wary of the new guidelines, thinking that renovations would not only be costly, but would also stand out and not be very appealing in terms of appearance.  However, once the concept of universal design was developed, architects soon found that making these adaptations could be less expensive, attractive and marketable, especially when designing new structures. 

It has been found that when building a new home and incorporating universal design, the cost is not dramatically increased.  When adapting an existing structure or adding higher tech items, the cost can be much higher.  Families that include a child or adult with disabilities face added financial strain.  Home modifications can often fall to the bottom of the list.   This does not mean that they are not important.  As mentioned before, an inaccessible living space can cause many problems for a person with disabilities and her caregivers.  It is very important to advocate for assistance with universal design remodeling or purchasing an existing home with such principles.

There are few state and federal programs that provide financial support to assist with remodeling (see this partner article for more information on this subject).  However, there are a few programs available.  Home Free Home (HFH), http://homefreehome.org/, is a non-profit organization "dedicated to promoting architectural design solutions to enhance the independence and well being of people with disabilities."4  They match people with disabilities to a volunteer architect who can provide universal design plans at no cost.  HFH is only in a handful of states but has a goal of expanding its services to all 50 states.  HFH also provides workshops throughout the country on universal design. 

What Can I Do?

The model of universal design has only been around for about 20 years.  It is, however, still a fairly unknown concept.  As parents and caregivers of children with disabilities, we can provide a unique perspective on universal design.  Many of our children will benefit from universal design principles throughout their lifetimes.  The idea of building homes with universal design initially will benefit all people in the future. 

Disability advocates can contact elected officials, including President Obama, to express the need for universal design.  Simply educating others within your community will aid in the increased awareness of universal design.  Advocating for local, state and federal funding is another way to help spread the word.  Together we can advocate for our children and all people who can benefit from an accessible environment.

Michelle Doty is the mom of Matthew, who is ten, and Campbell, who is four.  She is a full-time caregiver to Campbell and works part-time from home for Visually Impaired Preschool Services (VIPS) as their Family Services Coordinator, providing support and education to families of infants, toddlers and preschoolers in Kentucky who are visually impaired.  In her "former life," she was an occupational therapist, which has helped prepare her to be a special needs mom.

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 Author:  Michelle Doty
 Date Uploaded:   10/26/2010