Design for Everyone, Disabled or Not

This article on the importance of universal design underscores the importance that good design and should play in supportive housing.

January 7, 2007, The New York Times, National Perspectives

Design for Everyone, Disabled or Not

By LISA CHAMBERLAIN

ST. LOUIS

SHARON M. BROWN cried tears of joy the first time she took a shower without assistance in her new apartment. She had not been able to do anything more by herself than take sponge baths since she was hit by a drunken driver six years ago, further complicating the multiple sclerosis that had been diagnosed years earlier. For someone who had once hiked 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, she never thought taking a shower would be such a milestone.

Ms. Brown’s apartment building – which has bathrooms that are accessible to people in wheelchairs, including roll-in showers – is a milestone itself. The building, 6 North, opened in March 2005, and it was the first large-scale residential building in the country where all the units were built using what are called universal design principles.

While building codes set a minimum standard regarding accessibility, universal design is a relatively new concept that seeks to go beyond those codes to make the built environment usable by all people without the need for adaptation. This might include kitchen islands with adjustable-height countertops, front-loading washers and dryers, roll-in showers, and no-step entrances, eliminating the need for ramps.

But the important point, according to universal design advocates, is that it looks and feels like a normal apartment building. Rather than relying on designs that can segregate people according to their disability (impaired vision versus low mobility, for example), the intent of universal design is to create products and environments usable by as many people as possible, including people with no disabilities at all.

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