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Five Misconceptions about Universal Design

Universal Design is for the handicapped.

The tenets of Universal Design were not conceived for a specific segment of the community. It is, quite simply, better design.

In fact, it is likely that, every day, you use something that has been conceived using Universal Design principles, although you may not realize it.

Every time you ride your bicycle over a reduced curb, you are using a design that has been conceived to comfortably accommodate everyone.

More and more, Universal Design is creeping into our everyday lives, making things a little bit easier for everyone and, like the best types of design, few people will notice.

Although there are still too many barriers in our built environment, Universal Design principles do not segregate any community group.

When an able-bodied individual goes out for a walk in the city, they would rightfully expect to find the sidewalks smooth and easy to traverse, fully operational traffic lights equipped with pedestrian signals, well-lit streets, and any overt dangers, like electrical wires, high out of reach or below ground. That person might enjoy window shopping, sight-seeing, or stopping at a kiosk for an ice cream cone on a warm day.

That same privilege should be extended to everyone, regardless of any physical or mental limitation, whether temporary or situational. Anyone should be able to enjoy their environment without the fear of putting themselves in harm’s way; without the

worry of getting lost or stranded, and without the need of depending on someone else to help them.

Incorporating Universal Design practices in all newbuild,

renovation and update projects will ensure that everyone – every body – will enjoy their built environment.

There is no one within my circle who needs it.

Any building that is more than 20-years-old (and 85 percent of the buildings in North America are exactly that!) will become more difficult to live in, to use, and to maintain as its user ages.

A home that is suitable to an able-bodied 55-year-old may have too many stairs or hard-to-reach areas for a 70-year-old. A young, healthy and able-bodied individual may not give any thought to their built environment’s accessibility, until they break a limb. Anyone who has endured physical and/or occupational therapies to restore their motor skills will appreciate the thoughtful qualities of Universal Design.

Whether we go through life with a medical or psychological condition that is permanent, temporary or recurring, every one of us could benefit from a world that embraces the principles of Universal Design.

Universal design recognizes that people’s abilities, and therefore their needs, change over the course of their lives. It uses ergonomic principles1 to promote safety, independence and dignity for all.

The Building Code Already Covers Accessibility.

Building codes provide an important standard for the construction industry to follow. It contains guidelines for the overall structure of a building, including how walls should be built, the minimum sizes for rooms; a building’s foundation and roof structures, and mechanical and electrical assemblies, to name a few.

For commercial buildings (2), the Code dictates regulations for accessible washrooms, including requirements for an over-sized toilet cabinet and lowered sink, for example.

placed even one-step up, it is no longer an accessible washroom.

When using Universal Design principles, every detail on how an individual will experience a building is considered. It considers the entire spectrum of how any person will enter a space, identify where they are heading and how they will exit. And yes, even how they are going to find, access and use a washroom.

Not just people in wheelchairs: everybody. Every body.

Adapting a Space is Too Expensive.

Home, office and store designs that incorporate Universal design principles have so many features that make everyone’s life easier, it is difficult to understand why it isn’t in standard design today.

Unfortunately, many architects, builders and contractors still resist the concept thinking that it adds to costs and detracts from a home’s appearance.

In fact, homes that adapt these features will not appear dramatically different than neighboring homes. Often, universally-design homes will have a greater value than a neighbouring property.

Designing-in flexibility can increase a home’s marketability, particularly to seniors and people with disabilities, but also with intergenerational buyers.

Simple and inexpensive changes, like installing stylish and practical grab bars, are a good way to begin adapting a space. As property values skyrocket and home ownership becomes more and more out of reach, a young family, for example, along with one or both parents of one of the spouses, will combine forces.

This market will become increasingly important over the next 30 years as the “over 65” population increases from 12 percent to more than 20 percent. In most cases, home modifications can be simple and cost-effective, while simultaneously offering substantial benefits to any individual.

Easy changes, such as replacing typical ball-shaped doorknobs with levers; installing grab bars and non-slip mats in the tub; ensuring that all flooring transitions are flush and smooth and improving the space’s lighting will be a noticeable improvement.

When replacing a failing toilet, consider buying one that is a more comfortable height for sitting and standing. Modifications that require retrofitting – modifying an older type to a newer or better version – will be costlier, usually because the installation is more complex. These types of modifications may include ramps, personal care facilities, cabinet modifications, a stairlift, or a residential elevator.

Universal Design is ugly.

Universal Design is, above all else, design.

As such, special features and functions will be seamlessly integrated in the overall design of the space. A hospital bathroom, with all its institutional characteristics, by necessity takes a segregated design approach that separates people with disabilities.

Institutional-looking interiors are primarily designed for practicality, not aesthetics. An able-bodied individual will not give a second thought to a corridor handrail, yet a person with limited vision abilities it may be essential as a means of guidance. For many older people, people with limited motor skills, or people with hampered breathing, a corridor handrail may be a necessity.

A great design will make a corridor’s handrail an integral part of the design, appearing as a feature but also as a support.

Anyone who doesn’t need it, won’t notice it; anyone who does need it will appreciate it.

A necessity, like a corridor handrail, can become a feature with careful thought about how to integrate it seamlessly into the overall design. Creative designs that integrate the principles of Universal design will sit beautifully and quietly, until you need them. Like the proverbial White Knight, when you need it, it leaps into action.

Universal Design is not specifically about designing a space to accommodate wheelchair users, but neither is it specifically about decorating, although it does promote making the best choices in furnishings and accessories.

More than anything, Universal Design is about making a home, office, store, or any built environment where others are encouraged to visit, into an attractive, comfortable, safe, fully accessible, and welcoming place for you, your family, and everyone who visits you.

Perhaps you are a southpaw living in a right-handed world. Maybe you are beginning to feel the limitations of aging, or you are one of those brave souls who roll through Mid-town in a wheelchair.

Whether we go through life with a medical or psychological condition that is permanent, temporary or recurring, ever one of us could benefit from a world that embraces the principles of universal design.



1. Ergonomic principles are the key ideas suggested to minimize physical effort and discomfort and maximize efficiency; to increase efficiency, reduce repetitive stress to the body, and eliminate barriers and hazards.

2. In cases of personal residences and with the exception of buildings such as retirement residences, nursing homes and some social housing buildings, the building code has no requirements for accessible facilities.

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