America is a step behind on universal design

By Joshua Blake

Google “universal design,” and you get a fairly simple definition from Wikipedia. It reads “the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors.” Seems simple enough, right? This might be the first time you’ve heard of the term.

Or perhaps you’re someone who has heard of the term and believe it only applies to people with disabilities or the elderly – in other words, you might understand the term meaning accommodations for people who need help. There’s only one problem with that kind of thought.

“People don’t understand that the way we design now, is not for the majority of the population.” says Esther Greenhouse, a built design specialist, someone who looks to inform others about the benefits of universal design. Greenhouse lives with sensory processing disorder, and has had to navigate a world where her sensory issues are not addressed. After working for a few years in design and architecture, she found her way into teaching people about universal design. She always retained a keen eye for the way design hindered others.

“I had this predisposition to how people were impacted,” she says. Greenhouse mentions that people tend to learn about universal design in a very limited sense, like at conferences for aging or independent living, thus reinforcing the stereotype about who it benefits.

Historically speaking, many of our measured guidelines assessing the general capabilities of us humans, was administered by the military back in the 40s. These guidelines also predominantly catered towards men’s abilities.

Take into consideration that you, and everyone else, undergo physical changes as they age. Your uncle isn’t as sharp at playing a quick pick-up game of basketball, or your grandfather has had difficulty with going up steps. But these are just a few examples. What if you’re young, and you’ve broken a leg or a foot, and you live in an apartment with a broken elevator? Or no elevator?

Universal design can be a solution, where places like Pima County, Arizona, have been championing visitability since the early 2000’s. Visitability is a design mechanic that allows people with walkers, wheelchairs – or just people who have trouble with steps – the ability to live in and visit a single-family home.


 The idea is simple: Create an entrance to a home with no steps. It’s completely ground-level, with 32-inch-wide doors and a bathroom you can access on the main floor with a wheelchair.

However, Pima County’s own Southern Arizona Home Builders Association sued the county, arguing that the visitability law was unconstitutional. The Arizona Court of Appeals voted unanimously against the suit, leaving the visitability law in effect. 

A bill introduced to Congress last July, aimed to “require all newly constructed, federally assisted, single-family houses and townhouses to meet minimum standards of visitability for persons with disabilities.” Eight democrats and two Republicans cosponsored this bill, and no further action has been taken on it since, meaning this bill is dead in the water.

But what about buildings other than homes, like restaurants? Esther Greenhouse recalled a time when she and her husband were out at diner. Her husband is a builder, and he was there to talk business with his associates. One of his colleagues – a wheelchair user – couldn’t even enter the building.

For anyone at home thinking that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits such intrusions, like the lack of ramps or elevators or automatic doors, you’d be wrong – mostly because even though something is the law, doesn’t mean it’s followed. The ADA also fails in applying to older, already existing buildings.

Brittany Perez works as an occupational therapist at the IDEA Center in Buffalo University, a facility dedicated to researching universal design aspects that can aid people in multiple environments. They work alongside engineering, computer science and architecture students to create a multidisciplinary team to address problems and create solutions out in the real world.

“We find that that’s the best approach to implementing universal design,” Perez says.

She goes on to say that the center also looks at universal design for products and services, policies and practices – and of course, transportation.

They work with Carnegie Mellon’s robotic division in order to discover the best tech solutions for public transportation, something that is severely lackluster in this country.

Greenhouse believes that our over-reliance on cars to get us places hinders the benefits of universal design even further in terms of our public health.

“The built environment is negatively impacting our health today,” she says. Exercise is a benefit to prolonging health issues later in life, like high blood pressure/cholesterol and diabetes – which affect older adults severely due to decreased mobility. “Seventy percent of how well we age, is determined by lifestyle,” says Greenhouse.

For Malia Lovell, it’s difficult to watch her son struggle with the aspect of independence in his life. “Sometimes situations we’ve been in have been humiliating – for him – and I don’t feel that’s necessary in this world.”

Out here in Baltimore, Malia and Shane Lovell have their own story.

Shane is 32 and lives with Cerebral Palsy, a motor function disability that affects walking, arm movement, speech, and sometimes head movement depending on the severity of the brain damage that was caused before or at birth.

As a wheelchair user, Shane relies on a social worker to help him get up in the morning and get ready for his day. If he wants to go out, he uses a bus program called MobilityLink, a door-to-door service for those unable to use a regular MTA program.

Being out at restaurants or other places is a known issue for Shane, where the door used to enter the building may be automatic, but the bathroom isn’t accessible. 

“Accessibility doesn’t stop at the front door,” Malia said. 

   It causes them greater attention than wanted when improper design exists. “It causes me a lot of anxiety,” Shane says. It’s for this reason he sticks to the places he knows best.

The idea of training people to understand and accommodate the complexities those with disabilities face was a consistent theme for the Lovell’s. 

Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley is one such example of what society could look like. Automatic doors, hands-free sensors and a helical ramp aiding in evacuation are just a few of the universal design aspects they’ve implemented.

But research only goes so far in advancing the narrative.

“Not every situation is the same – not every person is the same,” said Malia.

The Maryland county school district couldn’t provide the adaptations Shane needed when he was younger, so they had to fight in order to get him into a school that could. They petitioned to get him into school until he was 21.

“I’m also fighting for a new wheelchair,” Shane says. “It’s a lot of administrative red tape,” says Malia. “It’s been eight months.”

For Missouri resident Dustin Bushnell, home isn’t so friendly, either.

He struggles to find the words to describe his fiance’s everyday life before focusing on a seemingly simple thing: bathrooms.

“We have two bathrooms, she can only use the master bath,” he says. “The shower’s behind the door, and there’s no room for her to, like, turn around, even use the toilet. So basically, she uses the toilet with the door open.”

Brittany is a wheelchair user who is also blind. Dustin is, too.

Habitat for Humanity, a global non-profit housing organization helps to accomodate disabled persons housing modifications. Dustin, however, says that the couple has had problems with their home in Missouri. “We finally quit, because they said ‘we were out of money, we can’t spend anymore,’” says Dustin. There’s even reports about the organization’s practices displacing poor people, per Propublica – an independent, non-profit investigative journalism site.

“Yeah, so, we’re kind of stuck,” he says, chuckling after-the-fact, making the remark even more sobering.

The home was branded to the couple as a universal designed building when they moved in April of 2017, but the reality was much different.

“When they said ‘universal design,’ I thought they might do some things for being blind – well, they talked about overlays for the oven – and that never came through, just a lot of stuff. And we’re finding out our contactor cut many corners.” Dustin says.

“Y’know, whatever,” he adds in disdain.

“We’re up against a lot of the same barriers we were in 2003,” says Operations Director of the National Council on Independent Living, Tim Fuchs. He says that educating builders and architects from the beginning is crucial. “When you plan for it, you remove the overhead,” he says.

If an elevator has to be retrofitted to an existing building, it could cost more than it would if the building was designed with an elevator in mind from the start, since now the building needs to be redesigned. The costs aren’t as high as one may think, Fuchs says, when you look at designing wider doorways, for example.

“We’ve seen legislation implementing notification periods for ADA lawsuits,” Fuchs says. These notification periods he refers to, are for the violators. The House of Representatives pushed through legislation just last year that would allow an ADA violator to extend a lawsuit process against them, should they make “significant progress.” As long as significant progress has been proven to be made, the period continues to extend. The Senate was the only body that stopped this from becoming a law, and it could be reintroduced this year.

Fuchs was beside himself, saying this impacts access to healthcare settings and housing. “People die,” he said, adding that he’s never seen something like this. “Where, if you break the law, you can say ‘just give me time.’”

One of Fuchs’ biggest roles is working with disability rights programs, and participating with barrier removal funds and healthcare providers. Have you ever gone to your doctor’s office and noticed there’s no automatic door? Fuchs aims to change this issue, but another barrier persists: confusion and lack of interest.

Fuchs gets calls about grants, with people asking if they need to comply. Since you typically apply for grants and are not allotted the money any other way, this makes no sense. Making things even more complicated are those who submit applications for grants only to forfeit them if they have to cover 10-20 percent of costs.

Norway is one country that seems to understand what researchers at Ed Roberts Campus, the IDEA Center in Buffalo and Esther Greenhouse emphasize, as they aim to implement universal design for buildings, transit and websites by 2025.

“We are all only temporarily abled-bodied,” Norway Design Council’s program leader said, when speaking on the country’s ambition to aid everyone.

But for the time being, America has a ways to go before it understands the benefits.

Greenhouse notes how these issues even bleed into architects and designers understandings, because the belief held is that we, as a society, are thinking of everyone when we build something. This may make sense to even the most ardent of traditionalists, but one must realize that something like average height-and-reach statistics favor nearly exclusively abled men.

“I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with who’re are older adults – in their 60s and 70s, definitely have age-related changes – and they are not considering any of these things through their own personal lens,” she says. In other words, people who are designing spaces for other people, like hospitals or apartment buildings, are failing to see the issues. 

As a country, America sends the message to everyone else that they don’t need, or will never benefit from these inclusions, because abled-bodied people fail to understand their own limitations as they age.

“We ask everyone else to adapt,” says Greenhouse. “The issue is, that the father you get from the norm that was used as the basis for design – the farther your abilities are from that – the more noticeable it is.”


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