In Universal Design, Comfort and Function for All

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Visualize a home or workplace that serves you well whether you are 25, 55 or 85, a place that you would not have to give up or alter as you age. Visualize a place that is comfortable and functional no matter your physical limitations.

These are the goals of what is called universal design.

Universal design aims to create "products and environments usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design," according to North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design. In the 1980s, wheelchair-bound architect Ron Mace established the center, part of the school's College of Design, to pursue the idea that artifacts and architecture should work for everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

Interest in universal design is growing. Last week it was on the agenda for a symposium at Metro headquarters that focused on ensuring access to transit for pedestrians and bicyclists. Also last week, a Wall Street Journal article discussed universal design embodied in homes for baby boomers.

"One in three Americans will be over 50 by the year 2010," Journal writer June Fletcher reported. Mindful of shifting demographics, home builders are more frequently offering houses with universal design features, marketing them to middle-aged buyers who don't yet need them.

The features, which Fletcher noted are usually seen only in housing for the elderly and disabled, include larger showers with built-in seats, higher toilets, fewer overhead kitchen wall cabinets, lower closet rods and higher electrical sockets.

Universal design is not quite the same as design complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that new or renovated buildings open to the public provide reasonable access and functionality to people with physical disabilities.

Today the positive effects of the ADA on public spaces are taken for granted: ramps and elevators as well as stairs; wider corridors and doors; textured walking surfaces; signs with Braille characters; lower drinking fountains and sinks; grab bars on walls in bathrooms, and audible crossing signals at street intersections.

A few of these features may go unnoticed, but many are obvious, reminding those of us who are able-bodied about those who are not. Such features also may remind the able-bodied that they may someday have trouble negotiating steps, steering a wheelchair through a hallway or seeing a walk sign.

But universal design also is a bit of a critique of the ADA 's focus on only the needs of a specific population, the physically handicapped. Advocates of universal design instead propose that, to be truly universal, we should shape environments to fit a much broader population, including the disabled.

Although the distinction between the ADA and universal design may seem subtle, it nevertheless leads to different ways of thinking about design, to new principles and outcomes. The Center for Universal Design has laid out what it considers the key principles:

ยท Equitable use. Produce designs appealing to and usable by people with diverse abilities, but without segregating or stigmatizing anyone.

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