Hospitable or Hospital?
The Need for Universal Design in Housing
Northwest Missouri State University
are living longer lives, and therefore it is important that housing
environments accommodate their needs as they age. There are more than
thirty million people in the United States with disabilities or functional
limitations, and the number is increasing because of the aging of the
population (Jones, 2001). The inaccessibility of
homes for those with functional limitations could be avoided if
houses incorporated Universal Design.
Universal Design refers to products and environments designed to be useful
to people of all ages, sizes, and abilities without specializing or
adapting the design (Mace, Mueller, & Story Follete, 1998). The
purpose of this paper is to explore the principles and benefits of
Does Universal Design Involve?
are seven principles of Universal Design (Mace et al., 1998). Principle
one is Equitable Use—the design is practical to people with
various abilities. An example of this would be automatic doors that open
when approached and allow a shopper to walk out pushing a cart or a person
in a wheelchair to exit a building. Principle two is Flexibility in Use—the
design is flexible and accommodates different abilities. For example, a
pair of scissors designed with two flat levers that squeeze together to
work the scissors accommodates right-handers, left-handers, people whose
hands are smaller or larger than average, or people who are missing
fingers as the result of accident or congenital defect. Principle three is
Simple and Intuitive Use—the design is easy to understand,
regardless of the user’s know-how, awareness, or current application
level. An example would be directions for putting furniture together with
pictures in addition to words. Principle four is Perceptible
Information—the design conveys the necessary information effectively
and efficiently, regardless of the individual’s abilities or
disabilities. For example, a person in a wheelchair could adjust a
thermostat set at eye level with large numbers for easy reading. Principle
five is Tolerance for Error—the design helps to minimize the
hazards in hopes of avoiding accidents. An example would be the undo
button on the menu bar on a computer screen in Microsoft Word programs.
Principle six is Low Physical Effort—the design can be used
efficiently yet comfortably with a minimum of fatigue by the individual.
For example, persons who have bags in their hands or someone who lacks
hand strength can operate a lever door handle by pushing down with little
or no effort exerted. Principle seven is Size and Space for Approach
and Use—appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach,
manipulation, and use regardless of user’s disabilities regarding body
size, posture, or mobility of the individual. An example would be wide
checkout lines that allow a person in a wheelchair to pass through with
Areas for Accessibility
are three critical areas related to accessibility in the home: entrances,
bathrooms, and kitchens. These problem areas could be accessible with a
few minor adjustments during the building stages or during a remodeling
Entrances. There are nice looking, universal solutions to entrance accessibility
that do not involve building a ramp. If the home is currently being built,
grading the area where the house will be built will allow the entrance of
the home to be close to ground level so there will be no need to build a
ramp. If a garage is in the plans, and the local building codes agree,
building a sloped floor that provides an entrance on level ground is a
solution. Another way of creating a level entrance would be to build a
bridge that goes from point A to point B at the same level or by using
earth filling to build up the ground level near the entrance. If an
existing home needs a new accessible entrance, earth filling is the best
choice and is ideal for accessibility (Mace et al., 1998).
Manufacturers make universal bathroom cabinets that include higher toe
kicks and lower counters to accommodate wheelchairs. Bathroom sinks should
provide knee space and can have electronic faucets. Cabinets with doors
that fold out or cabinets that can be pulled out provide the necessary
knee space for those in wheelchairs. For even more convenience, there are
cabinets with upper shelves that can be lowered for easy reach by a person
in a wheelchair or by those who are short. Some companies are now making
prefabricated, curbless showers that allow easy access. Some conventional
bathtubs have lever faucets located near the side of the tub for ease in
reaching controls (McMillan, 1994).
Manufacturers make universal kitchen cabinets that include higher toe
kicks and lower counters to accommodate wheelchairs. For even more
convenience, some cabinets have upper shelves that can be lowered for easy
reach. Pantry units are available with rotating shelves and full extension
drawer units so that the items in back can be reached. Refrigerators with
doors side by side are available with shelves that slide forward to
increase the usability for a wide variety of consumers (Workbench, 1998).
Why Isn’t Universal Design Being Used
Although Universal Design is a valuable concept, many people are not
taking advantage of it. Most consumers feel that universal design products
need to be more attractive and do not want to feel as though they are
living in a hospital or nursing home. Consumers want the design to
correspond with the appearance and style of their homes, whether it be
Ranch style or Victorian.
A shows a bathroom in the home of a retired couple
that could benefit from universal design so it could be accessible to both
of the users. One modification would be grab bars with a Victorian
flare and accented in brass to complement the brass on the bathtub’s
accessories. Manufacturers face a dilemma of producing grab bars that
correspond with a variety of styles.
A. A bathroom that needs Universal Design.
with permission by Patricia Leach, homeowner, March 14, 2002.
Another dilemma has to do with accessiblity. When trying to make products more accessible,
the question of proportion arises. How large should lettering be? What
size button is large enough? How much pressure is too much or not enough?
Designers know that they cannot make a product absolutely accessible and
that there are no magic guidelines for proportions. Designers can make a product more
accessible, but there will always be people who cannot use it (Zacks,
Should Understand the Concepts?
How do we get more people
to listen and take advantage of Universal Design? Designers and builders
need to be involved in hopes that they can incorporate the concepts and
bring to life new ideas. Real estate dealers should also understand the
need for Universal Design. The designers and builders, real estate
dealers, and some future buyers can be reached by articles and or
advertisements encouraging the use of Universal Design in industrial
magazines and journals and other publication such as brochures and flyers.
Designers and builders already understand the concepts of Universal Design
but need to be encouraged to incorporate them into homes and office
buildings for better accessibility of persons with disabilities.
Future buyers can be
reached by articles explaining and promoting the concepts in magazines
such as Consumer Reports, Better Homes and Garden, and Traditional
Home. Another possible way would be to promote the concepts on the
radio with advertisements that give addresses to homes and showrooms that
incorporate Universal Design.
This paper explored how Universal Design will benefit
people of all ages, sizes, and abilities. Consumers will save money if
they are building homes to incorporate the concepts
than building a home and later remodeling at a cost of more than double.
Consumers who understand the principles and benefits of universal design
can work with designers and builders to incorporate housing features that
will add flexibility and long-term advantages.
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