Universal design is frequently talked about and discussed today, by consumers as well as professionals, but not everything is accurately presented. It’s easy to get swept up in the great concept that it is and ascribe other details to it that simply don’t fit.
For instance, universal design is a great approach to accomplishing aging in place solutions, but they are not the same concept. Universal design accommodates all ages and abilities, while aging in place treatments have the capacity to address special needs and aging issues that restrict mobility, sensory responses, and cognitive abilities. Universal design is a more global, over-arching principle that is not specific to any one person or need. It largely includes them in the larger design scope.
In many households, a universal design approach will suffice for aging in place, In others, it’s a great start but doesn’t go far enough because a specialized response is needed that doesn’t apply to just everyone.
To say that a universal design approach should include features that only apply to people with certain limited physical activities is to miss what universal design is all about. It seeks to accommodate everyone. In the majority of households, this will be plenty to provide the safety, access, comfort, and convenience that are desired and appreciated. In others, more specific treatments applying just to those household members will be needed.
Certainly, universal design allows accessibility and maneuverability into and within the home. However, the design approach known as specialized design is for the specific needs of people within a specific household and may not be desired or appreciated by the general public. This does not diminish the importance of those design features or treatments. They just cannot be called universal design because to don’t apply to or serve everyone.
Just keep in mind that universal design is meant to include all ages and abilities without regard to any limitations that they might have. If more specific treatments are necessary to serve certain individuals within a household, then aging in place, adaptable, or specialized design solutions might be called for to address those additional concerns. This is how universal design accommodates the issues of life. When, as we say, life happens, meaning an unexpected circumstance befalls us – a sprained ankle, a broken bone, a concussion, the need to use a walker or wheelchair for a time, or other unplanned, surprise event – the universal design can allow us to still be comfortable using that space without any other treatments or adaptation.
No matter how careful we are, and no matter how much planning we put into a project, something can – and frequently will – crop up that we didn’t expect or can’t explain. This is what we mean by “life happens.” Even the most careful considerations can sometimes fail us. However, not having them can exacerbate issues and make them much worse. When life happens, an out-of-the-blue occurrence that shouldn’t have been, but it did anyway, suddenly befalls us. Now, we are faced with dealing with it the best way we can.
This is how universal design can anticipate such needs – not because of any prophecy but because of the inclusive nature of its design and considerations. It is meant to accommodate a wide range – the widest actually – of physical activity, including those who rely full-time upon or temporarily of assistive device for support and mobility.
With universal design features, we have a cushion of sorts. When we have an accident in the home, there may be some offsetting design elements that will allow us to keep from injuring ourselves any more than we already have. They can allow us to keep from falling or to support ourselves. They can reduce the amount of glare or visual distractions that might be present so that we can navigate our space a little easier and more safely without causing additional injury or risk to ourselves.
When an accident happens that causes us to leave home and visit the emergency room or a walk-in clinic for treatment, universal design features awaiting our return home will help us enter and navigate our space more easily. No special accommodation or adaptations likely will need to occur unless the physical changes we experience are permanent and mobility-modifying. Otherwise, universal design – whether an accident, misstep, fall, or another event in our home where life happens and throws us a curve – means that we are going to be better equipped to deal with what comes along and better able to get through that episode and persevere.
Universal design is a good design strategy for all ages and most ranges of abilities throughout a person’s lifetime – during the good times and not so good ones.