“Unpacking The ‘Universal’ Part of Universal Design”

When it comes to using our homes and living spaces comfortably, safely, and conveniently, there are many products in the market that will work for most anyone without regard to gender, age, physical size, education, or ability. There are even more that we can create through various solutions, installations, and adaptations as well as several “hacks” that we can use which are simply products or ideas intended for other uses that we “borrow” or repurpose to work for our needs.
These products, treatments, and solutions that apply to nearly anyone in a residential setting without qualification or specialized design or consideration are referred to as universal design.
We all know about the seven principles of universal design that were quantified by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in 1997. There is an eighth one also that is not written down but underlies the others – that the design should not call attention to itself as to why it’s there other than for the attractiveness of it. It is nonetheless effective and useful – just not obvious as to why it exists as anything more than the function it seems to provide. Rocker light switches, lever door handles, single lever kitchen faucets, fold-down shower seats, loop door handles, and digital thermostats are just some of the many products that fir the universal design definition and classification.
As part of the overall discussion of universal design, an aspect of it that has gone unnoticed and unaddressed is the idea of price or cost. This seems to be fundamental to any concept of universal usage and adoption. Can something be universal if it only works for certain solutions such as those in a high-end application? Likely not. All price points have similar needs.

So how do we solve this dilemma? We might begin by taking a high-end solution – one that is quite technical and often beyond the electrical or experience needs and requirements of the people who could benefit from such a solution – and re-engineer it to a simpler design. Call it reverse engineering or a scaling down, but many products that really can and should be universal design don’t find their way into simpler designs or ones with a low-budget because of price point.

Maybe we can have it both ways – an acceptable solution that is appropriate for anyone and at a price that allows for its use – even in low-budget or fixed income situations. This does not mean that all solutions need to be accomplished with the scaled-back versions, but they should within our grasp to suggest and use.

Consider that we might have a basic concept to serve the needs of people in the kitchen or bath, for instance, and it can exist in a high-end design with touch activation, bluetooth technology, motorized adjustments, and more, or it can exist in a more non-electronic version that accomplishes similar functions but requires manual adjustments rather than electronically or virtually.

If universal design is really going to be for anyone regardless of age, ability, size, or other common human performance factors, we need to observe another inclusive aspect, and that is financial. Universal design should appeal to people across income strata or financial ability to have just certain high-end solutions for their issues. We owe to the people we serve to offer sensible, intuitive, low-impact solutions that work for anyone – regardless of where they live, their income level, the value of their home, or other economic factors.

As we create aging in place solutions for our clients, we can offer them ones made for their specific needs, but whenever possible we can fashion them in a way that means that anyone living in their home with them, people coming into their homes to visit or because they were invited (visitability), or those that might own that home in the future will be able to take advantage of those features as well as those for whom they have been produced.

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