by Carole Dodge, O.T.R., C.H.T.
Remodeling a home or buying a new home is never an easy process. From the type of carpet to the design of the bathroom fixtures, there are literally hundreds of decisions for you to make. And if you are like most people, your decisions probably reflect your current needs and preferences, with little regard for what the future might bring.
But now, as more people are living longer and better technology is available, it makes sense to consider home design that works for you today and in the years to come. If you’re thinking of building or renovating, now’s the time to take a look at universal design. By incorporating the principles of universal design into your home, you can ensure that it works for you now and well into the future.
Universal design is design that is usable by as many people as possible. The creator of the term “universal design” was Ron Mace, a visionary architect and determined advocate who promoted a new way of thinking about design. For most of his life, Mace used a wheelchair and understood firsthand what it was like to live in a world not designed for his needs. In the 1970’s, he began advocating for universal design principles, and as the director of the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State University, he helped establish many of the building codes that have been adopted in North Carolina and many other states. Mace’s premise was simple: There should not be two types of design — one for the able-bodied and one for people with disabilities. Instead, there should be a “universal” standard of design that can accommodate people with a wide variety of abilities.
This vision was different from the vision current at the time, which promoted “accessible” design for people with disabilities and traditional design for everyone else. The focus of universal design is not specifically on people with disabilities, but on all people. A quote from Susan Wendell, author of The Rejected Body, addresses this universal goal: “It took me several years of struggling with the heavy door to my building, sometimes having to wait until a person stronger came along, to realize that the door was an accessibility problem, not only for me, but for others as well . . . I interpreted it, automatically, as a problem arising from my illness, rather than as a problem arising from the built environment having been created for too narrow a range of people and situations.”
In seeking to widen this narrow range, universal design is based on the following premises:
The concept of universal design is applied to buildings and spaces. It’s also applied to products, from appliances and furniture to computers and other technologies. This article will look at how the concept can help people with disabilities related to arthritis. But the advice offered here is useful for anyone who wants to make a home easier to live in, as well as safe and attractive.
If you have arthritis, two long-term challenges you have to deal with are protecting your joints and saving energy. By incorporating elements of universal design into your life, you can learn to keep stress off your joints even when doing quite involved tasks. For example, you can use a bath seat in the shower to reduce stress on weight-bearing joints. You can replace doorknobs with lever handles so that opening a door becomes easier and less painful. You can vary (or adjust) counter heights so that you can sit down to do many more tasks. Changes such as these can make many of your daily activities easier and less frustrating.
When you’re thinking about ways to make changes in your home, it is a good idea to begin by figuring out which tasks are the most difficult or painful for you, or just plain impossible. Then you can look for possible solutions. Ask for suggestions from others, such as home contractors skilled in universal design. You can also consult medical professionals such as occupational therapists and physical therapists, who are aware of elements of home design that can conserve energy and reduce stress on your joints. (Some occupational therapists even make home visits to evaluate living spaces.) Finally, you can look through catalogs for design ideas. To help you get started, here are 10 basic ideas for carrying out the principles of universal design.
Plan for one-floor living. If your home has more than one floor, the first floor should include an accessible bath, bedroom, kitchen, living area, and laundry room. In traditional two-story houses, bedrooms are usually upstairs. But when arthritis makes going and up down stairs difficult, you can save energy and make life safer for yourself by having a bedroom on the first floor. Sometimes a den or living room can be converted into a bedroom. Or you may be able to build an extra room onto your house.
Last Reviewed on June 27, 2012
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