Universal design is a great, inclusive concept. Its major premise is that the design so labeled and intentioned will work for people regardless of their physical size and stature (tall or short, seated or standing), their physical ability or strength (able-bodied or more limited in mobility), their age (from pre-school to an advanced age), or their education or cognitive ability (from limited formal schooling to advanced educational degrees). In a phrase, it is a design that is all things to all people.
While it’s hard for a design to truly encompass everyone because there are so many limiting conditions and special circumstances (sensory, cognitive, and mobility) that people encounter and live with on a daily basis – or ones that may appear later in life – something created as universal design will come as close as possible to meeting the needs of everyone in a home.
Here, we are speaking strictly of residential applications when we talk about universal design. In commercial and other public settings, the concept is one of accessibility and often meeting and complying with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
We are talking about using universal design for aging in place applications when we can modify a space for a specific individual’s ability and have that end result blend into the rest of the home without calling attention to itself or being solely for that one individual. In other words, anyone else living in that space or coming into it from the outside would not appreciate it or understand it to be a specialized design and they likely would be able to use it successfully themselves without stopping to think that it had been created in specific response to the needs of someone else.
Universal design, which also incorporates the concept of visitability, is the dominant strategy for achieving accessibility, maneuverability, and freedom of movement within a home. Most of what we call aging in place solutions – except for a few specific more visible features such as vertical platform lift of stair glides that are installed specifically for the people who depend upon them for vertical mobility in the home – can actually be done through effective universal design.
Thus, they are the same thing for most purposes – labeling the various design strategies doesn’t really matter that much except when someone is describing a strategic approach to renovation to a contractor, friend, family member, or someone else unfamiliar with the details of that particular strategy. They may just have heard of the strategy without knowing that much about what it describes.
Consider this. When we need to put a screw in the wall to hold up a picture or attach something to the wall (such as a grab bar – alternately called an assist bar, shower assist, shower rail, balance assist, and similar names) so that it won’t fall unexpectedly and will function as intended to support whatever weight or force might be applied, it doesn’t matter that much what type of head is on the screw – flat, pan, oval, hex, or whether it’s a sheet metal or wood screw, or whether it is Phillips, slotted, Roberson, Torx, hex, socket, or something else, and whether it is a screw that goes into a stud, a metal or plastic anchor, a Tapcon, a molly fastener, toggle bolt (or Toggler or somthing similar), or something specifically designed to hold assistive devices like the Secure-Mount and Wingit. The important thing is that something needs to go into the wall that is strong enough to hold up what we are attaching to it without falling out, letting go, or coming loose.
That said, the public’s understanding of the differences and nuance among universal design, aging in place treatments, visitability, adaptability, and accessibility design strategies may not be clear cut or well defined. Something that is used as an aging in place solution, for instance, that is not applicable to a younger population or people without mobility concerns might be described by the media or others as universal design when it clearly isn’t because that’s what they think it is or that that’s the term they choose to apply to describe it. Nevertheless, the solutions and the strategies are the most important thing, and not what they are called – even by us. People want results rather than labels.
Still, we need to be careful how we describe design solutions and products – because others will take our lead and repeat what they hear us say. We should only call universal design strategies ones that clearly are, and use aging in place and other terms for more specialized types of design. Remember also that aging in place, like universal design, only refers to residential applications although it frequently is discussed as being used for commercial uses.