Universal Design for Lifelong Independence Back »

Written collaboratively by Leacey Brown and Dallas Willman.


What is Universal Design (UD)?

At its core universal design seeks to create products and environments that can be used comfortably by all people with minimal adaptation or specialization. What this means is that a home can accommodate changes we experience over time or a disability that is the result of an accident or disease. In contrast, homes that are not designed for all people often require expensive modifications to accommodate the needs of ourselves or loved ones with disabilities.

What makes universal design different from accessible design is its focus on the experiences of all users. Accessible design focuses on the needs of people with disabilities. Another important difference is that universal design provides performance standards as opposed to static design specifications that cannot account for human diversity.

Universal Design Principals

  • Principle one: equitable use
    The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Principle two: flexibility in use
    The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Principle three: simple and intuitive use
    Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Principle four: perceptible information
    The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  • Principle five: tolerance for error
    The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Principle six: low physical effort
    The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Principle seven: size and space for approach and use
    Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

Source: The Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.

Who should implement UD?

We all should be implementing UD. It helps everyone at every age, whether we are in the later stages of pregnancy or experiencing disability or short-term injury. Our friends and loved-ones also benefit from UD in our homes.

When should we implement UD?

Ideally, UD should be implemented at the initial design of the home. Unfortunately, many homes were not designed with UD principles. As a result, the primary way that UD can be implemented is during home renovations.

Would you like to see an example of a home that was retrofitted for UD? Check out Home Matters: Home Today, Home Tomorrow Design Challenge - Memphis House.

Why should we implement UD?

UD design increases the chance of remaining in the home when faced with an injury or a disability. Not only can we remain in our home, we can interact comfortably with the space. This allows us to continue to do the things we love at home because the home is designed to accommodate people of diverse abilities.

In addition, UD is more likely to retain the visual appeal and value of the home. Accessibility focuses specifically on the needs of people with disabilities. Unless the potential buyer has a current disability, traditional accessibility features that do not blend seamlessly with the design of the home may deter them. UD can be seamlessly designed into the home so no one is aware of the versatility the home will bring them through changes in their lifetime.

Another benefit of UD is the positive impact it has on our mental wellbeing. One of the most challenging aspects of aging or disability is losing our ability to accomplish tasks independently. This loss can be devastating. By incorporating UD into our homes, we can maintain our ability to perform tasks independently. The empowerment that comes from performing tasks independently has a positive impact on our mental wellbeing for both ourselves and the people we love.

How do we increase the number of UD homes available?

Increasing the number of UD homes available in our communities will take commitment from all of us. Because of the low number of UD homes available, it will take decades of work revolutionize our housing stock. For this reason, we all have to commit to asking for these features in new housing and during home renovations.

Hiring professionals with an expertise in UD is critical to increasing the number of UD homes available in the housing stock. Accessibility is not the same as UD so it is critical to work with an architect or designer who has been trained to understand UD and its application in residential housing.

Are you looking for ways to join the housing design revolution?

Check out our series What is needed for aging in place? to read more about incorporating UD into home remodeling projects.

Additional Readings and References:

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