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Universal Design: An Introduction & How-To Guide for Your Home

by Garrett Fleming

Universal Design: An Introduction & How-To Guide for Your Home, Design*Droits-Humains

The defines Universal Design as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” In essence, spaces that are designed with this concept in mind are places where anyone with or without a physical or mental nuance can thrive. They’re also barrier-free and anticipate the needs and safety of those living there for their entire lifespan, even taking into account mobility changes. For example, a home or business with hallways wide enough for a person using a wheelchair or walker to navigate as well as doors that automatically open would be considered universally designed. Why? Because both attributes allow the person using a device as well as a person walking to interact with the space without either feeling hindered.

How is this different than accessible design, you ask? The  defines accessible design as that which specifically deals with tackling challenges faced by those with a disability. A wheelchair lift, for example, would be considered accessible because a person who doesn’t use a wheelchair wouldn’t interact with the lift, making it accessible and not universal by nature.

The differences between the two — as well as how designers and homeowners approach them — are layered, so to help us better understand we’ve asked a few experts to put together some quick ways you can make your own home more comfortable for any visitor, no matter their physical or mental needs. Meet professor , Imani Barbarin of , and  Rebekah Taussig. These three all bring a unique and well-researched POV to the conversation, so scroll down and get ready to take some notes. Trust me. After this you’ll wonder why more homes aren’t already practicing universal design. Enjoy! —

**For more on this topic, check out 10 Tips for a Wheelchair-Accessible Home, A Modern Wheelchair-Accessible Bathroom, and The Intersection of Design & Accessibility at Home with Rebekah Taussig

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SEATING An easy-to-slide-into bench in Rachel and Tyler Grace’s NJ Craftsman.

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“Think about where you and your family frequent in your home as well as where you entertain guests. For eating areas, stay away from bar furniture and high stools. They’re difficult for many people to use. Also, keep a few plastic straws on hand for people who have difficulty using cups and glassware.” —Imani Barbarin of .

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STORAGE Dishes neatly stowed in a piece that keeps everything out of the way of foot traffic in Rachel Skidmore’s Salt Lake City home.

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“Getting to know how people can move through your home will help you design spaces with intention and attention to function. For example, if storage furniture such as shelving blocks pathways to shared spaces, consider using vertical storage to get things off of the ground (and make your home more accessible to those who use a wheelchair or medical device).” —Professor .

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SWITCHES Easy to use “rocker-switches” – a type of light switch – in Meredith and Anthony’s Chelsea loft.

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“Flexibility is key for universal design, so lights that give the user control to adjust brightness and dimness are helpful. Wide, flat panels (sometimes called ‘rocker-switches’) are more inclusive than small, narrow switches or stiff chains that have to be yanked on lamps. Lights activated by touch make things even easier!” — Rebekah Taussig.

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BATHROOMS Easy shower access like here in Maria Vång’s Swedish home is easy on all.

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“Make your home more accessible by purchasing an accessible-height toilet or building a step-free shower with a wide entryway and seat just outside the flow of water. Detachable shower heads are a as well.” — Imani Barbarin of .

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HARDWARE Leslie and Kris  Santarina’s dresser is easy to open thanks to its universal handles.

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“The hardware on your cabinets can make a difference. Larger handles tend to be accessible to more people, particularly those with a D-shape.” — Rebekah Taussig.

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LIGHTING Natural light like that in Ali and Jeremy Hynek’s Utah home is always better than artificial.

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“With the popularity of LED lighting, many people are adopting these bulbs in their homes. For [some], they trigger migraines due to their intense light and high-pitched sounds. This is especially true of dimmable lights. Consider buying bulbs without the dimmer and making sure to use a shade. Some hardware stores will even let you test the bulbs before you use them.”
— Professor .

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RUGS This low pile rug minimizes the light reflecting off of the wooden floors in this Salt Lake City home.

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“If your floors are shiny and produce a glare, try adding a low-pile rug to reduce the effect [on those who have light sensitivity].” — Professor .

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HANDLES The lever on Orlando Soria’s kitchen faucet makes it universal in design.

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“Door knobs that have to be gripped and turned can be tricky to manage, so replacing these knobs with levers can make it easier for more people to access a room. The same concept applies to knobs that operate your faucets. Longer handles can be operated by a finger, knuckle or palm.”
— Rebekah Taussig.

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Comments

  • This is a very timely article as so many older people are opting to stay in their homes longer. These simple upgrades can make a huge difference in the quality of life for people as they age. The shower is genius!

  • In that bathroom with the rocker switches, I’d be able to turn on the lights, but not the faucets. I know that’s not the design feature you were focusing on, but as bathrooms main purpose is well the access to water in various ways it seems a strange choice of image to show the light switches.

  • Thank you for sharing these perspectives. My mom has had arthritis since she was a teenager so we always had certain door handles on our doors, and this helps me think of how we can be even more inclusive.

  • Love, love, love seeing this. My husband and I recently purchased our first home, and thought a lot about the needs of my aging mother, who uses some devices to assist her. I couldn’t believe how many houses we saw that couldn’t accommodate a walker—one even had three narrow slate steps between the bathroom and all the bedrooms! Looking forward to seeing Universal Design incorporated into new builds and as part of the restoration process in older homes.

  • THANK YOU! As someone with physical issues myself (RA) I really appreciate that you show accessible items that have STYLE.

    So many of the items we need to be able to function as independently as possible are down-right ugly and look like they belong in a hospital not a home.

    And thanks also for noting that even younger people with no current issues can use a lot of these recommendations, not only for their future selves but to make their homes more welcoming to friends and loved ones who may need such accommodations.

  • Thank you for such thought provoking article and introducing people whom I want to follow. I have enjoyed this tremendously.

    Orlando’s faucets, by the way, comes in touch sensitive versions – which, I suppose, is more all-abilities friendly.

  • I am SO glad you’re featuring universal design! The disability rights movement has inspired the way I approach my work as a speech-language pathologist. I wish that people with communication disabilities were more frequently included in discussions about accessibility. I work with adults with aphasia, an acquired language disorder that can impact speaking, understanding spoken language, reading, and/or writing, but doesn’t affect intelligence. You know the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon? Imagine dealing with that every time you wanted to communicate. For many people with aphasia, written language in the environment can be inaccessible. Using pictures and pictograms allows people with aphasia to do things like order from a restaurant menu independently, locate a doctor’s office, or understand signage in public places. As an added benefit, aphasia-friendly environments also help people who don’t know English or who are illiterate. Win-win! Another consideration for people with aphasia, as well as those with hearing loss, is that background noise can make it very difficult to communicate. When thinking about making spaces accessible to all, I urge people to consider how the physical environment impacts people with aphasia and other communication disorders.

  • Articles like this one are sorely needed. We are each truly only temporarily able bodied and, for the most part, the design world seems to ignore this fact. Thank you, Design Droits-Humains, for championing design that is more than pleasing to the eye, design that is inclusive and enables each of us to function to the best of our abilities.
    Individual needs vary and beyond design features that are universally useful, specific adaptations must be made to meet these needs. Where to learn about all the options? Where to learn about resources? Most crucially, where to learn about implementing our new found knowledge?
    How about from each other? Would Design Droits-Humains consider delving deeper and providing an ongoing series of articles and tours showcasing how people have designed their homes to meet their specific functional needs?

  • I wanted to add that LED lights also suppress the natural melatonin release that helps you fall asleep at night . (as do all our blue screens!) . Melatonin is an important hormone not only for sleep but for immune function, circadian rhythm maintainence and as an important anti-oxidant. LED really have no place in the home. Save electricity by turning off lights, using on/off power strips to stop phantom load/standby power usage, buying energy efficient appliances, etc.

  • Thanks so much for this article! I’d love, love, love to see more posts like this one. I’ve been thinking a lot about accessibility and diversity in public and private spaces that is usable by all people together, instead of separately. It’s a topic I explore through my work, and this is very useful, excellent information. Also, thanks so much for introducing these individuals and their work.

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