Universal Design: A Guide to Becoming Master of the Universe!

Okay, okay … maybe not the entire universe, or multiverse if you belong to that school of physics (no discrimination intended here), but you can be master of the most important part of the universe, your home. We all know that home is where your heart is, but what if your home is set up to make your life more difficult?

Close your eyes and imagine this: You are an adult of average height (whatever that means these days) with no physical disabilities. You walk into your home to find that your light switches have been moved out of reach. Your kitchen cabinets, microwave, pantry and all of your closet rods and shelves have been set so high on the wall you can barely access the items you store in them without asking for assistance. The door knobs are difficult to grasp and turn. The mechanisms to open your windows are even worse than the door knobs. Your windows are set so high you hardly see out over the sill. Your faucets are placed so far back from the front of the countertop that you struggle to lean over to turn them on. You find most things in a position that make them either difficult to access or just plain awkward and uncomfortable to navigate.

Does this sound like a home you would want to live in? I didn’t think so.

What most people without disabilities do not realize is that this scenario is not fictional for many individuals with physical disabilities. What you also may not realize (or do not want to) is that, one day… far, far away…you may begin to find it difficult to turn your door knobs and reach your jar of pickles. Yes, you! We, as humans, age. (I know, it is difficult for it to sink in…give it a minute.) As we age, some of us begin to stoop and cannot reach as high as we used to. Arthritis makes it difficult to climb stairs, grasp items and turn a common door knob. Our bodies degrade and our home begins to work against us. It’s a conspiracy! But do not despair my friends, the principles of Universal Design can save the day!

You ask: What is Universal Design? Universal Design is the idea that things, like the entrance to your home, should be designed to be comfortable, safe and accessible to EVERYONE regardless of height, physical ability or age.

Resources to Master Your Universe.
I do not purport to be a design “expert” (as handy as I am with a paint brush), I know full well that I should “stick to my day job,” but sometimes that day job means I serve as Trustee of someone’s special needs trust. As Trustee I have to evaluate whether a certain home is appropriate for the beneficiary’s needs. In order to do that properly, I not only hire the “experts” on accessibility but I also greatly rely on other resources which I share with you below.

Practical Guide to Universal Home Design which is produced by East Metro Seniors Agenda for Independent Living (SAIL) of Minnesota with support from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. I have found that this guide gives a good, basic overview of Universal Design and has wonderful checklists for integrating accessibility principles into various areas of your home. For example, a more “universal” entry to a home should have a doorway at least 36” wide allowing a space of at least 34” for passage through (a must for wheelchair accessibility), should have a stoop or landing at the same level as the home (i.e., no steps up or down, and should have an overhang, awning or canopy to keep those outside coming in dry.   It also gives ideas for some less costly modifications like installing lever door handles instead of round knobs, installing door locks with remote control or keyless pads that are easier to operate, making sure there is adequate lighting inside and outside the entryway, and installing a lighted doorbell. These are some of the myriad of ideas you can find in this guide to make your home friendly and welcoming to all and a place you can call home for a very long time.

Elements of Universal Design/Home Modification fact sheet is part of the Senior Series of whitepapers published by The Ohio State University’s Department of Aging.   This fact sheet gives a great overview of the principles of Universal Design and provides additional resources to learn more about Universal Design in its application.

Maximum Accessible Housing of Ohio (MAHO), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing maximum accessible housing solutions to those with mobility disabilities, has given us one of the greatest examples of the principles of Universal Design at work on a grand scale right here in Cleveland, Ohio. “Cotman Vistas” is a brand-new four-story apartment building with 36 units located in University Circle which just celebrated its grand opening on August 10th. It is one of several “Vistas” apartment complexes run by MAHO. MAHO’s Cotman Vistas is very special because it was specifically designed from the ground up using principles of Universal Design for maximum accessibility.   The building has fully accessible entryways, common rooms, apartments, kitchens, bathrooms and laundry facilities for its tenants. I invite you to explore the accessibility features of Cotman Vistas online through their blueprints, photos (check out the huge smiles!), and diagrams:

MAHO’s Cotman Vistas also houses the Anderson Center for Accessible Living which provides information and resources on accessibility and housing for individuals with disabilities, as well as educational programs and advocacy services. The Anderson Center is constantly in the process of developing new programs and activities geared to improving access to accessible housing. Keep checking the Anderson Center for new and exciting additions to its programs and resources!

Here are some additional resources:

AARP Universal Design Home Modification:

Adaptive Environments Center, Inc. Universal Design:

Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University:

Universal Design can make your home more accessible, flexible, and safer. It is not only relevant for individuals with disabilities, but for people in all stages of life, including families with small children, people of shorter or taller than average heights, people who are unexpectedly injured or who would like to age in their home. An “average” home can sometimes get in the way, literally. So I recommend that you get to know the concepts of Universal Design and apply them to your home and your world so you can be Master of Your Universe!

– Posted by Attorney Andrea Aycinena

Posted in Accessibility, Blog.