Universal Design Explained (and Why Homeowners Should Care)

I saw a cartoon today that was designed to illustrate the differences among equality, equity and the removal of systemic barriers  . . . but it is also a really good way to explain universal design.

Now, hang with me here for a minute. I can’t show you the cartoon because, frankly, I can’t determine who originated it and therefore can’t give proper credit and we have a little thing in this country called intellectual property law and I don’t want to get sued and, well, you get the picture (well, you don’t actually, but you know what I mean).

Anyhoo . . . here’s what it depicted:

In panel one, the “Equality” panel, three people of varying heights – – short, medium, and tall – – are standing on one side of a solid fence on the other side of which a baseball game is being played.  They each are standing on one crate, and each crate is the same size, which allows the tall and medium people to see over the fence to watch the game, but the shortest of the three still isn’t tall enough to see, even with the crate under him.

In panel two, the “Equity” panel, the tall and medium guys still have their crates but the shortest guy stands on two crates and can now see the game too.

In the third panel, the “Removal of Systemic Barriers” one, none of the three spectators is standing on any crate, but the fence has been changed from a solid one to a chain-link one, allowing everyone to see through it. That, my friends, is universal design. [Drops mic, walks off]

Well, okay. A bit more explanation may be in order as to how this relates to home improvements and why you, the homeowner, should care.

First, it is a perfect illustration of “universal design” because it shows how something can be made to fit everyone in a way that disadvantages no one. The chain link fence is useful to everyone, regardless of height (hence, it is “universal” in it’s application.) Similarly, door levers instead of knobs are great for arthritic hands but equally usable by the non-arthritis afflicted; light switches lowered a few inches can be reached by the able-bodied just as easily as the higher version can, and are now accessible to those in wheelchairs as well; and hallways and doorways widened by several inches to allow for walker and wheelchair passage don’t in any way pale in comparison, for those moving without appliances, to the narrower versions.

Secondly, these three panels illustrate that universal accessibility doesn’t have to look “special”, or “different” or otherwise detract from your home’s style or aesthetic. If you walked into that third-panel ballpark, it would likely never occur to you that the chain link fence was different, didn’t fit in, or was in any way inferior to some other kind of fence. Universal design elements can be the same. Wider hallways are as aesthetically pleasing as their narrower counterparts, and bathrooms designed with enough free space to allow for a wheelchair turning radius appear simply “spacious” or “spa-like” to those not tuned into the turning radius issue.

So, why should you care? In a nutshell, a big segment of America is aging (hello “boomers”), and doing it in good health with lots of energy. Sixty is the new 40, 80 the new 60. We’ll be staying in our homes longer, aging in place rather than transitioning to assisted living or nursing homes. If you’re making renovations now, consider whether you’ll be in this home in 10, 15, or 20 years and plan accordingly. Installing wide hallways will never be easier than when you’re renovating anyway. If, instead, you plan to sell the home before you’re too advanced in age, consider universal design elements as part of your renovation anyway. Your future buyers will be looking for them, and it will only improve your home’s value.

Check out our previous blogs for more information about remodeling for baby boomers and for special needs and aging in place.

Wise homeowners plan to get the most out of their renovations, now and in the future. Now, go forth, and improve universally!

Image courtesy of franky242 at

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