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Universal Design

The Case for Universally Designed Communities

When it comes to creating spaces that work for people with disabilities, there seem to be two approaches. The first is what I am going to term Reactive Design. When I think of Reactive Design, I think of ramps that are too steep that are tacked on as an afterthought to a building. I think of doors that are wide enough to pass code but space between tables that no one in a wheelchair could possibly fit through. And I think of row after row after row of houses with stoops and steps and porches and an electric lift rusting quietly to itself beside one porch. While it can be helpful as a short term measure to an extent, it is still problematic because it is often too little, too late for those who are already struggling and isolated.

Reactive Design feels like this big task that we have to do to accommodate the complicated needs of those we feel sorry for. Reactive Design feels onerous to those who are temporarily able-bodied and feels demeaning of those living in bodies and minds that are challenged in one or more ways. It also frequently fails to achieve its stated objectives – full participation – because it looks for the simplest, cheapest, quickest fix to the problem in front of it (and still usually takes a very long time to achieve this!)

That’s because Reactive Design is inherently limited to a reaction to a specific disability right in front of us – meaning that each and every need has to be identified, communicated and responded to individually. This in turn makes it far more costly in terms of time, financial resources and manpower than it needs to be, with far more duplication of effort and a much lower end result.

Ultimately, this definition of Reactive Design fails to recognize the learning and knowledge and benefit that the perspective of differently-abled individuals can bring to society as a whole.

So what’s the alternative? Universal Design, of course.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

Think about the last time you went to the grocery store and pushed your cart out to the road. Did you have to bump your cart down the curb, or was there a handy curb cut just waiting for you to roll down? This is an example of universal design. Those curb cuts help me out tremendously when I am wheeling around town, but every person who has ever pulled a wheelie suitcase, pushed a grocery cart or baby stroller or pulled a wagon for their paper route has benefitted from them.

Or think about the last time you took two small children with you to a public washroom. Based on my experience waiting for the accessible stall, my guess is that you took your children into this larger stall because the alternative was having one (or more of them) on your lap while you took care of business. This is another example of Universal Design. I can’t use the washroom unless I can get my chair into the cubicle, but there are lots of other reasons that might mean you need a little more space – so we all benefit.

Universal Design is pro-active – it doesn’t wait until someone presents with a specifically identified need, but rather it thinks about the widest range of potential needs at the design phase and works in those considerations from the very beginning to avoid issues down the road. This approach significantly reduces costs in the long run, and allows everyone to benefit from any additional costs incurred during the design and build phase.

This in turn means that Universal Design is inclusive and allows a space for full participation by everyone because it creates space for everyone. Furthermore, because it does this without requiring people to pre-identify their needs, it is much more flexible and allows inclusion immediately when situations change and a new need presents itself.

And finally, universal design honours and values the unique perspectives of individuals with disabilities and allows them to become central to creating environments that everyone can benefit from.

Our best public buildings and services have been investing in this strategy now for a number of years, and you can tell. These buildings are far more comfortable to be in for all involved, and the experience as a person with a disability is remarkable, as there is no extra effort or accommodations needed – I get to participate as an equal.

But home design is entirely different. At this point there are very few builders even considering Universal Design principles when they build, and even those who adhere to the new building code standards for accessibility are still leaving a lot of concerns on the table!

But given that disabilities don’t ask permission to show up in our lives, given that our population is aging, and given that the last thing anyone needs to have to stress about when they are newly injured or dealing with new disabilities is how to reactively confront design challenges in their home environment, I have to say that it is time for a new building approach, particularly in our new home construction.

Which is why this year I’m going to take you on a journey from our Reactively Designed, only partially accessible home to a fully Universally Designed family home. I’m going to talk about why we’ve done what we’ve done from the very beginning and what would need to change to make this affordable and accessible for the thousands of individuals and families across Ontario alone who would benefit from this type of construction.

I hope you’ll join me!

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