5 Truths About Universal Design

Test Your Knowledge Against What the Experts Say

How much do you know about universal design? Take this pop quiz to test your knowledge, then check out the Resources and ADLs sidebars so you're ready the next time a mobility customer or rehab client asks how to make home sweet home a little sweeter.

True or false?

  1. Universal design is the concept of making homes accessible to people with disabilities.
  2. False. According to the Center for Universal Design, "The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities." Adds John P.S. Salmen, president of Universal Designers & Consultants, Takoma Park, Md., "Universal design is a much more holistic view of the lifespan and people's changing abilities throughout their lives."

  3. Universal design may be ideal, but it's significantly more expensive than traditional design.
  4. False, especially if universal design is part of the original plan. Says Salmen, "When we include universal design concepts at the very beginning of the design process, the costs may be minimal." In fact, universal design's universal appeal can actually help defray costs. "The cost of aesthetics and features that are appealing to everyone is a broad question that is often borne by marketing," Salmen explains. "By appealing to a larger market, as true universal design does, marketing costs may actually be offset."

  5. The average American home is built to fit Tiger Woods.
  6. True, now that he's had corrective eye surgery. "The vast majority of homes, whether houses, condominiums or apartments is designed for a healthy male who is relatively tall, has close-to-perfect vision, and is generally fit," says Susan Mack, an aging-in-place specialist and OT who operates the Homes for Easy Living consulting firm. Mack says this "model resident" is "likely in his 20s and is a minority who will sooner or later become one of the majority." Mack describes that majority as children, women, people with disabilities or injuries, and seniors, all of whom "are at least somewhat disadvantaged by traditional residential design. It's no wonder that the home is the place where so many injuries occur."

  7. "Visitability" and "accessibility" are the same.
  8. False. "Visitability" was coined by Eleanor Smith, an advocate for people with disabilities. Smith describes a visitable home as one with on-grade access from the outside through a stepless entry, main-floor hallways and doors at least 32 inches wide, and a main-floor bathroom. Smith contends that such features make a home safe and comfortable for someone with a disability to visit or stay a short while. But the entire home might not be accessible.

  9. Universal design features need to be implemented during the initial construction of a home.

    Trick question. It's true that certain features, such as 34-inch doorways and graded outdoor walkways, are usually much easier (and cheaper) to install during initial construction. However, universal design features can also be built early, but not implemented until needs arise. For instance, architect Laurence Weinstein suggests that two-story homes contain closets on both floors, one directly above the other. "This could easily be converted into the shaftway for easy installation of a residential elevator at a later time," he explains. Weinstein has also worked with a Best Bath Systems curbless shower with "blocking behind all three walls, so that if somebody doesn't want grab bars now, but needs them later on, they can be installed easily and provide the 250-lb load capacity." Adjustable showers or handheld shower heads may be considered amenities today because they give great back massages, but in the future, they could make bathing easier for those with impaired mobility.

How did you score on this quiz? More importantly, how would your customers and clients? The good news is that universal design is being embraced by growing numbers of architects, builders, educators, home appliance manufacturers and health-care professionals. Pass along the Universal Design Resources (see sidebar) to help your customers and clients join the crusade.

Universal Design Resources to Pass Along

www.aarp.org/life/homedesign/ — The American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) Web site has an entire section devoted to aging in place. The site helps visitors evaluate their home, room by room and even appliance by appliance, via easy-to-use checklists. The "Doors, Floors, Walkways" section, for instance, asks, "Is the front door wide enough for a wheelchair or walker to pass through? There should be at least 32 inches of space when the door is open." A kitchen checklist asks visitors to answer yes or no to "My refrigerator has a water and ice dispenser on the door."

www.concretechange.org — This visitability site advocates for at least the "most essential" universal design features to be incorporated into homes, so someone using a wheelchair can comfortably and safely drop by for a visit or short stay. The site includes articles on visitability legislation, photo galleries and resources.

www.extension.iastate.edu/pages/housing/uni-design.html — This universal design resource list from Iowa State University includes information on housing for seniors and people with disabilities. But more fun are the Remodeling Examples, with photos, video clips and colorful commentary from homeowners.

www.universaldesign.com — This commercial Web site belonging to Universal Designers & Consultants includes a "Universal Store," which professionals or consumers can use to order free or low-cost publications. An interactive forum allows visitors to post questions and view answers.

Appliance Manufacturer Web sites — These sites contain product info and photos of universal design appliances, along with resources on accessibility and safety checklists.



ADLs: Otherwise Known as Universal Design?

When is an aid to daily living (ADL) no longer an aid to daily living? Maybe when it becomes so familiar it's just part of the furniture. Just as today's youngsters will never know a world without DVD players, tomorrow's kids may never know a world without stepless entrances for homes and grab bars in the bathtub.

Consider the Web site for the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP). You might expect its aging-in-place section to be filled with tips for seniors -- and it is. But the Web site also explains how universal design helps residents of all ages. For instance, the bathroom section says, "If you're a parent bathing a small child... it's not easy to bend over or kneel down while you try to catch a slippery toddler who wants to swim like a fish."

In fact, the AARP site includes a "bathroom checklist" with questions about bath safety products, as well as questions about wheelchair accessibility. Consumers are asked to answer yes or no to such statements as "The bathroom door is at least 32 inches wide," "The bathroom has enough clear floor space for a wheelchair," and "There are grab bars around my toilet, tub and shower."

As bath safety products are increasingly sought after as just good sense, what will be the next ADL to make itself at home? Perhaps door openers that make entrances easier for anyone who has to carry in groceries, whether he's in a wheelchair or not?

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of Mobility Management.

In Support of Upper-Extremity Positioning