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What is Universal Design ?

"The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more useable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities."

Universal Design has become a significant worldwide issue because of demographic changes toward an aging society leading to more persons with disabilities, the rise of the Independent Living Movement (ILM), human rights laws, and changes in building codes and standards, and general desire for better functional designs by informed consumers.

Independent Living Movement (ILM):
Under ILM, problems are defined in terms of barriers in the environment (i.e. economic, architectural, or support systems) rather than in terms of the individual's physical and/or mental disabilities. The primary meaning of independence to the ILM is the ability to have control over one's life in the community.

Human Rights Legislation
The ILM was a major factor in changes that have occurred with respect to human rights regarding accessibility. Human rights declarations provide broader mandates for inclusion than building codes and standards.

User-Expert Involvement in Universal Design
Universal designers must know and consult various users to successfully create a universal design. Users should include anyone using and working in a space and may include parents managing with toddlers, older people with changing vision or stamina, people of short stature, or those with limited grasp or who use wheelchairs. It should not be assumed that anyone with disabilities will have expertise in access or universal design issues.

Examples of Simple Universal Design Concepts:


  • Safe sloping walks at 1:20 maximum slope to provide a route from car to house, building, or school without having to take any physical steps
  • Benches along route to destination with places to park strollers and mobility devices

Stepless Entrances:

  • A one-half maximum rise at the entrance of the threshold to make rolling easier and to prevent tripping
  • Lighting along outside and at every door entrance for better night vision
  • A 5'X5' clear entrance space outside entry doors to make maneuvering easier while opening doors


  • Doors that are 36"wide for easier maneuvering
  • Doors that have easy to use lever handles
  • Large button phones

General Bathroom Features :

  • Grab bars for safety in the bathroom
  • Allowing knee space under sinks. Pipe protection is provided to prevent contact with hot pipes.
  • Mirrors placed to allow appropriate viewing from various heights
  • Toilets with higher seats that are more comfortable for many users
  • Combination toilet/bidet for everyone's hygiene needs
  • Roll-in showers with fold down seat accommodations

Fixture Controls :

  • Single-lever, or other easy to use water controls
  • Hand -held shower heads, or adjustable height moveable hand-held shower heads

Storage :

  • Adjustable height closet rods and shelves to allow flexibility of storage options
  • Power operated clothing carousel to bring items easily around

Hardware :

  • Lever door handles
  • Loop handle pulls on cabinet doors

Home Automation :

  • Intercom doorbells
  • Flashing fire alarms for people with hearing impairments
  • Switches and Controls
  • Easy touch rocker switches for use with people who have limited hand strength

Kitchen :

  • Counters that have clear knee space under sink for use in a seated position. Pipe protection for hot pipes.
  • Rolling carts for easy maneuvering of items around the kitchen.
  • Color contrasting on counter tops to allow for easy recognition of counter edges and to prevent spills.
  • Pull out drawers for easy to reach storage.
  • Lazy Susan for easy to use storage.
  • Side-by-side refrigerator to provide easy and convenient access to refrigerator items.
  • Front mounted control on range that contrasts with the color of the appliance to facilitate easy reach and use.

Laundry :

  • Front loading washer and dryer with front mounted controls
  • Universal design is important to all people, whether young or old. It allows individuals to live their lives from their own home with their families irregardless of age or disability. It encompasses a human being for their entire life cycle.

Universal Design Web-Based Resources :
*The Center for Universal design, North Carolina State University: www.design.ncsu.edu/cud
*Adaptive Environments (Massachusetts): http://www.adaptenv.org/index.php
* IDEA Center&the RERC on Universal Design ( Buffalo ): http://www.ap.buffalo.edu/idea/
*Lifease Inc. http://www.lifease.com/lifease-home.html
* National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modifications http://www.homemods.org