What if products and spaces were usable for everyone?  Like a can opener that’s advertised as easy use for someone with arthritis; but anyone can use it?  Or curb cuts, which make sidewalks accessible, but also benefit delivery people using dollies and people pushing baby strollers?  The idea of designing products and spaces so that anyone can use them is known as “universal design”.

Universal design, as defined by the Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, “is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”.   More examples include: light switches that are placed slightly lower on a wall, and widened doorways.  While these two modifications make it easier for someone who uses a wheelchair to navigate their environment, these changes are either neutral or even beneficial for someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair. The lowered light switch doesn’t cause any difficulties for someone not using a wheelchair (and makes it where young children can reach the switch too), and widened doorways, in addition to ease of access for someone using a wheelchair, also comes in handy to anyone who is moving furniture in or out of a room.  Levered door handles make it much easier for someone has limited range of motion in their hands to open doors, but also makes it easier for anyone to open a door when their hands are full of grocery bags.  Seven key principles of universal design (as borrowed here from CUD) are:

Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

• Flexibility in use: It accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities.

• Simple and intuitive: The design is easy-to-understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge or skills.

• Perceptible information: Necessary information is communicated to the user, regardless of sensory limitations

• Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards, accidents or unintended actions.

• Low physical effort: It can be used with minimal effort.

• Size and space for approach and use: Regardless of the user’s stature and mobility, the design is appropriate for approach, reach, manipulation and use.

For more information about Universal Design, visit the Center for Universal Design at:  https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/

For an interesting article about the Universal Design Living Laboratory, visit Contractor magazine at: http://contractormag.com/bathkitchen/universal-design-going-beyond-ada-requirements