Universal design was quantified in 1997 by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University with their seven principles of universal design. It had been around unofficially much earlier, but now had concepts that people could refer to and agree upon.
Unlike aging in place, which is strictly residential in scope and application, universal design can apply to commercial uses and the marketplace. Nevertheless, universal design is a great baseline to apply to aging-in-place solutions.
When there is no urgent need, universal design creates accessible and visitable space and makes items in the home more comfortable and convenient to use. This, in turns, creates a safer environment.
When there are special needs present, universal design often accommodates those needs or goes a long way to alleviating the impact of those needs in the home setting. By creating more open access, maneuvering space, easy-opening cabinets, hard surface flooring, good lighting, fixtures that are easy to operate, and controls that are mounted lower than otherwise might be typical, people have a much better opportunity of using their living space effectively.
Still, universal design needs to adhere to the published and acceptable guidelines promulgated by NCSU or there is a lack of a standard. In practice, universal design essentially means that we are designing for all ages, sizes, and abilities, but we know there are some exceptions.
Nevertheless, calling something universal design that clearly does not fit the guidelines or hampers maneuverability, reach, or easy access within a space is an improper use of the term – one that might cause people to refer to and share with others a so-called universal design when it is not representative of what it needs to be.
Doing an organic internet search for “universal design” will yield many examples of what people have labeled as such which aren’t that at all. So, be careful to make sure that the basic principles of NCSU are being followed before agreeing that something labeled as universal design actually qualifies.