Universal Design: Now’s The Time

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person on crutches

Universal design isn’t just about growing older. It’s about making life easier right now. Here are a few ways to use accessible features in day-to-day life.


Four years ago, I suffered a knee injury that left me virtually immobile. Beyond the health issues, the practical issues soon became very obvious. I couldn’t climb up or down the stairs.

I needed to use a cane to walk on even the flattest surface. Moving from one place to another was an exercise in frustration. Even moving from the oven to the refrigerator, a mere three feet apart, was like climbing a mountain. Stepping into the shower, a simple movement that I had always taken for granted, was now almost impossible.

It was a very long few months.

Slowly incorporate universal design

When we moved into our new home, I was determined to slowly incorporate universal design into any new remodel or improvement. With the limitations of a knee injury fresh in my mind, I had a very good idea of what might happen as we get older and can’t move around as well. Thus, accessible design became a near-obsession.

Interestingly, I quickly realized that universal design isn’t just about planning for the future. It’s about making things easier right now.

hands free faucet

We began by adding the small things. For instance, the kitchen sink was in dire need of a new faucet, so this was our chance to incorporate something accessible and stylish. A hands-free faucet seemed like a perfect solution. What I didn’t expect was how often I would be grateful for the convenience.

Anyone who loves to cook understands the dilemma of how to turn on the water after just handling raw chicken or meat. With a wave of the hand, that problem is solved. It was just the first of many fantastic benefits we would reap by incorporating universal design.

Universal design features you need right now

Thinking about incorporating universal design in your home? Here are a few great reasons to do it now rather than later, drawn from my own experiences with changing things up.

  • Pull-out shelves save your back (and knees). Remember that knee injury? One lingering effect is real difficulty with kneeling down to pull something out of a cabinet — my knee tends to lock up, and it hurts! I can avoid that with pull-out shelves on all the lower kitchen and bathroom cabinets. These shelves also make it much easier to see everything in the cabinet, so I find what I need with a glance.
  • Wider doorways come in handy. Our doorways are wider than the norm, made to accommodate a wide walker or wheelchair. But right now they make life much easier. When we choose to move a piece of furniture from one room to another, there is no advanced geometry required to figure out the angles of the doorway — we just turn it to one side and carry it through.

Ramp to home universal design

  • A ramp makes life easier. There are four stairs up to the front porch, but the back porch is a different story — that’s where we have the ramp. The ramp comes in extremely handy when we are loaded down with groceries or hauling something heavy into the house. It’s also much easier to keep free of snow during the wintertime, so it provides a safe way for us to get out of the house when the steps are icy.
  • Rocker switches are awesome. How many times have you walked into a room with your hands full and realized you had to either put something down or contort your body into a weird pretzel in order to turn on the light? Rocker switches allow for a quick touch of the elbow and bingo — you’ve got illumination!
  • Safety grab bars offer peace of mind. About a year ago, I lost my footing in the shower. As I went down, I lunged for the heavy-duty grab bar mounted on the wall. It was enough to keep me upright, and possibly saved me from aggravating that aforementioned knee injury. It’s nice to know there’s a safety net in the event of a sudden “whoops” like that one.

Other points to consider

Being unable to climb stairs is always a concern, so a home designed with a bathroom on the ground floor, complete with an accessible shower or tub, as well as a ground-floor “spare room” of sorts that could be transformed into a bedroom is a good idea.

A very wide doorway to the outside, such as double doors on a patio, is great for the possibility of one day bringing in a hospital bed or other large equipment. Incorporating a roll-in shower, complete with a comfortable bench seat, makes your bathroom feel like a spa.

Life made easier at home in the present

Besides good planning for the future, these universal design elements can be used everyday, right now, to make life much easier. Even if you are in excellent health right now, remember that life could easily be disrupted. Planning for universal design now can make those little surprises (like a knee injury!) much easier to handle.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.