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Universal Design Makes Buildings Accessible to All

Universal design is a method of designing and building a structure that accommodate all types of people, regardless of differences in age, physical ability and size.

It is becoming more common to see buildings that accommodate all types of people, regardless of differences in age, physical ability and size. This field of building is called universal design, and it ensures that structures are designed to meet the special needs of the disabled and elderly, and that these buildings are pleasing to other populations who also use the building.

Ten years ago national attention was focused on accessibility for all by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). This act prohibits discrimination against disabled people in employment, education and services, and requires employers to make their facilities accessible to, and usable by, persons with disabilities. While the ADA does not set requirements for private homes, it has, nevertheless, brought universal design to the forefront in all areas of the building world. Over the past decade universal design has had a positive impact on buildings of all kinds, and a special niche for this type of construction has developed.

This emphasis on universal design has had a positive effect on people without disabilities as well. Parents with children in strollers find it easier to negotiate the wide aisles found in universally designed buildings and employees of moving companies praise increasingly common stairless entries. Certainly some people may not have need of universal design themselves, but chances are they probably know someone who could be helped by it. Many baby boomers are coming to an age where they are facing issues of taking care of elderly parents, and easier access to buildings is becoming an important issue.

As this type of construction becomes more common it is being used in public and private buildings alike. A universally designed home might have kitchen areas with wide aisles for maneuvering, and countertops that vary in height for people to stand or sit and work at them. Stairless entries, spacious bathrooms, wider doorframes and broader hallways are all typically found in a universally designed home.

Not all buildings are universally accessible yet, despite the ADA. Private homes tend to be the last area where universal design is applied. This will gradually change over time, however, as homeowners have a need to create better access for themselves or family members. While retrofitting older buildings allows for easier access, it often means separate entrances for the disabled and the so-called "able-bodied." While this is not the ideal situation, as universal design becomes more prevalent, buildings will be created and adapted to the needs of their populations.

Source: Katrina Mason, The Washington Post.