Universal Design

The following is a major reason for my hiatus last month on the blog; I was writing this report instead. Hope you enjoy it!

           The United States today is facing a set of problems unique to this millennium, associated with a drastically changing demographic landscape. There is an average annual population growth rate of nearly 1 percent (more than 3 million people), the percentage of the population that is living with a disability is higher than ever, and the largest generation alive in the United States today is reaching retirement age. Awareness of these issues has allowed the concept of universal design to gain popularity and momentum. Universal design is a concept based on a set of principles that, by their nature, eliminate the boundaries that otherwise arise due to conceptual oversight. Take for instance an elderly citizen who is no longer able to drive but is perfectly able to walk, however there are no sidewalks along the streets. Or consider a homeowner who had an accident and is now bound to a wheelchair but cannot enter his own house unaided. Ideally, the principles of universal design lead to products that are equitable and flexible in use, require low physical effort, are simple and intuitive, have tolerance for error, and space for use. If universal design is considered and incorporated, it will lead to an environment that is accommodating for all different types of people, including people with varying degrees of ability, mobility, and perceptibility. Universal design in the United States is rapidly gaining popularity because of its inherent practicality, but the challenge it faces today is that of being incorporated into existing societal systems.

            The concepts that define universal design are versatile, and as such they can be utilized in many different settings in order to serve all sorts of different purposes. There are many reasons why considering these concepts during the design phase of a project would be beneficial and attractive to the designer. For private sector examples, the resulting product would be usable by a broader range of people, leading to a larger customer base. In the public sector, for all things designated as a “public facility,” governing factors like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have pushed universal design to the forefront of design criteria. However, in the process of incorporating universal design into these products, it was soon realized that because of these considerations, better products were being made. In essence, products made with universal design considerations are better than those without. For example, the curb cut, a ramp leading from the street level surface to the sidewalk, was incorporated in order to make sidewalks accessible to wheelchair users. However, after doing so it was acknowledged that the curb cuts do not just benefit wheelchair users; in fact, they benefit everybody. With a curb cut installed, the sidewalks can now be easily accessed by bikers, skateboarders, parents pushing baby strollers, elderly citizens with mobility problems, and the average person. Therefore, a sidewalk that considers universal access in its design is a better sidewalk. Since these design considerations lead to better products, universal design is becoming popular in all sorts of fields and has given rise to a multitude of different concepts. These days you can see its influence almost anywhere, from door knobs and light switches, to electronics and software.

In houses, the concept has become known as aging-in-place. This concept has become very important because, starting now and for decades to come, the largest demographic age group in the country is going to be reaching a point in their lives where many will require assistance. Whether it is assistance with everyday tasks around their house, or even simply going to the grocery store: when such a large group of people begin to require such accommodation the resulting strain could have massive effects. The group is known as the Baby-Boomer generation, and with a population of nearly 77 million, they represent approximately 25% of the entire U.S. population. Naturally, aging comes with many complicating factors which, for many, make independent living difficult, if not impossible. The aging-in-place concept developed in order to relieve strain on nursing homes and simultaneously, allow the aging community the option to continue independent living. With certain design considerations, a home can serve as a place where people can grow old, without the need for living assistance or the need to move out altogether. An aging-in-place house will usually include a variety of alterations to ensure accessibility to all people. To make sure wheelchairs can easily navigate the home, there will either be a ramp incorporated into the design or it will have a ground level entranceway, and the house will have wider doors and hallways. In addition, the stairwells and bathrooms will usually have stabilizing or assistive equipment installed, and the kitchen will have open space along with multi-height countertops. However, those examples are just some of the more noticeable differences.

In all the places where one may experience barriers, the home is one place that should not. Life-complicating factors can manifest themselves in many different ways. Some can be severe and will affect every aspect of a person’s life while others can be mild, and will only affect specific aspects of a person’s life. However, the value that comes from making a person’s condition easier to live with and less noticeable during everyday life does not diminish, despite the severity of the condition. With medical knowledge and technology advancing all the time, people with certain illnesses, deformities, and complications that would normally be fatal, are surviving. As a result, the number of people living with a condition is higher than ever. For that reason and because of universal design’s practical nature, its indiscriminate incorporation into all homes would be beneficial to everyone.

Most often, houses that are designed for universal access are hardly distinguishable from those that are not. Things that are seemingly unimportant like adequate lighting, avoidance of installing windows at the end of hallways, or providing contrast in the color scheme of the furniture can make navigating significantly easier for people with poor vision. Selecting lever style doorknobs and hardware that does not require a strong grip to operate allows people suffering from arthritis to more easily open doors and cabinets; it even takes into consideration small children. Making slight height adjustments for light switches and power outlets not only provides ease of use, but also equality of use for those of both short and tall stature, and children as well. All of these things could easily go unnoticed, but at the same time, makes life easier for everybody, not just for the elderly or those with disabilities, which supports the assertion that products that take into account the principles of universal design are simply better products.

            These concepts are not limited to the indoors alone. They are often applied to the outside amenities as well, such as the porch, the driveway, and the sidewalk. Additions like applying non-slip surfaces to the porch, walkways, and driveway make entering and exiting the house much less hazardous. Often times, a slip can lead to injury and a hospital visit, especially for the elderly. Aging-in-place and universal design concepts can even be brought to the community’s roads. For decades, mobility within communities was unknowingly being restricted to those that could operate a motor vehicle. Many roads failed to even have a shoulder, let alone a sidewalk. Not only is this a limiting factor, but it is a dangerous one as well. Creating a transportation infrastructure that is equitable in use is a fairly simple idea, but one that has its fair share of challenges as well.

            A solution to this problem is the complete road; a term used to describe a road that is built to accommodate not only automobile traffic, but pedestrian, bike, and public transportation traffic as well. This is done by utilizing a practice known as ‘road dieting,’ which (most times) reduces the number of operating lanes down to two, making room for the addition of bike lanes, sidewalks, turning lanes, medians, and bus stops. Not only does this practice welcome and encourage other modes of transportation besides the car, but it also improves the overall safety of the road. As a result of the automobile traffic lanes being reduced in both number and in size, the comfortable speed at which the vehicles travel is also reduced. Statistics have shown that, as a result of road dieting, the average speed at which the cars travel is slower and therefore, accident occurrence rates are lower. 

Unfortunately, this type of road construction has only recently started to be considered on a large scale, and even now, only when new roads must be built. The challenges mentioned above can be characterized by these restrictions that are inhibiting the incorporation of the complete road. The transformation process is slow because it is just not economically viable to update the existing roads to fit these standards when the roads are still in functioning condition. For that reason, close to the start of the 1970’s, legislation on the state level began being passed making it so that all new roads being constructed were to accommodate both bicycle traffic and pedestrian traffic in addition to automobiles.

            The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is another example of legislation that promotes the incorporation of universal design. The goal of this act was to end the discrimination against disabled peoples in the United States, similar to how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the discrimination of people based on sex, race, or religion. The effect of the ADA was substantial. Not only did it grant disabled people employment equality, but it also enforced equal access to all public accommodations. Under the ADA, a public accommodation includes all service establishments, recreation and entertainment facilities, public transportation terminals, education facilities, and all other such locations. In order to ensure equal access to buildings for disabled people, the ADA specifies extensive mandatory requirements and accommodations that buildings must have. In addition to equal access, it also enforced consideration for people with seeing and hearing disabilities through the availability of braille and sign language for public accommodations, and the use of closed captioning for television. Considering the enormity of the process the ADA was beginning, the law gave allowances for the time cost and capital cost.

            In addition to the ADA’s influence on universal design in the private sector, there have even been legislative attempts to encourage the incorporation of universal design concepts into private sector structures as well through incentives and tax breaks. In Florida for example, there are incentives in place in the form of subsidies. These subsidies encourage designers and homebuilders to follow aging-in-place designs. The motivation for such incentives is to save money in the long term. Since a large amount of government money goes towards assisted living institutions, and each additional person that has to be transferred there means more government money being spent, it has been deemed more efficient to make houses fit the aging-in-place standards so that less people move to assisted living communities. 

In essence, this style of approach, one that attempts to slowly transform the existing system, is the only efficient and viable means of doing so. However, it is most certainly a necessary one in order to make sure that people of all levels of ability are able to coexist in society as equals. Learning from these examples, making sure that any and all new construction and renovations are made without barriers will help the advancement of universal design in many places. Designing in advance is the key to avoiding unnecessary alterations in the future.

            The steps being taken to encourage incorporation of universal design in the United States are producing results. Whether it is in the public sector with infrastructure and public buildings, or in the private sector with homes and architecture, the last two decades have seen vast improvements in the field. Much of the focus of universal design has indeed been towards designing for people with handicaps; however that does not mean that it will only affect those people. To make something easier to use is the same as making something more efficient.  What makes this design approach so successful is that because of its inherent practicality, the further it spreads, the more appreciated it becomes and the more popular it gets. When the public begins to realize that universal design concepts lead to better products, they will inevitably strive to incorporate it into their lives as well, further spreading the idea. At its fundamental level, the power of an idea can lead to great accomplishments. Much of what universal design is doing is taking already existing and already utilized ideas in order to improve them, and make them more functional; reworking them so that they can serve their purposes more efficiently, making the world a better place for everyone. 

 

This was an assignment for my internship and I am really happy to have had the opportunity to research this topic because it is relevant to my interests and a valuable topic to be knowledgeable in. I hope you enjoyed it!

 

 

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