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Remodeling with Universal Design

After reading the title of this article you may be wondering, “What exactly is Universal Design?” As defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”. Universal Design or “Lifetime Design” means creating an environment that is user friendly at any age or level of ability. Incorporating Universal Design products and ideas into your remodeling plans can mean being able to live comfortably and independently in a home for a lifetime. Now that we know what it is, let us look at some of the myths and realities associated with Universal Design.

Myth: #1: Universal Design is unattractive.

Reality: Universal Design products come in a wide variety of colors and styles. It is all a matter of choice. Incorporating Universal Design will not make a home look cold or institutional. Many companies have incorporated Universal Design into their product lines. Remote control ceiling fans, phones with large buttons, large print thermostats or magnifiers for thermostats, are all good examples of Universal Design products.

Myth: #2: Universal Design is costly.

Reality: Many Universal Design products cost no more than other products. For example, a lever-style doorknob can cost the same as the traditional round knob style.

Myth: #3: I do not need Universal Design. I am not disabled.

Reality: Universal Design is beneficial for everyone. How many times have your hands been full when you needed to open a door?  Try a little experiment on your own: With hands full, try to open a door using a traditional doorknob. Now, do the same using a lever-style knob. You will find that a push of your elbow atop the lever-style knob eliminates the need to unload what you are carrying to turn the traditional knob, and then pick it all up again! A broken wrist or ankle may be temporarily disabling, but dealing with these conditions only once can make one appreciate what many physically challenged individuals must face daily. Universal Design can make functioning during the healing time easier and life, in general, much more convenient.

As you plan your remodeling project, why not add features to the home that will help your client enjoy it throughout life’s changes?

Following are just a few of the many ways that Universal Design can be incorporated into your remodeling plans:


  • Look for cabinets with slide out shelves and vary counter heights so that everyone in the household, including children, can assist with preparing meals.
  •   Allow as much free floor space as possible. Generally, an area measuring a minimum of 5’ x 5’ should accommodate anyone using a walker, wheelchair, or crutches.
  • When choosing new appliances, consider a range with an enclosed cook top for easy cleaning and added safety. Controls on the front of appliances are easier to access than along the back of the range. A raised oven with a pull out counter below can make baking more convenient.
  • Consider raising the dishwasher a few inches above floor level to reduce the amount of bending required in loading and unloading.  Pull out style dishwashers are also an option.
  •   Side-by-side refrigerators allow for easier access than those with the freezer on top.
  • Install under-the-cabinet lights over work areas such as the kitchen counter, chopping block, stove, and sink. Make sure switches are accessible.
  • When shopping for new fixtures look for lever handles. Levers are easier to use than twisting a knob. A good way to test a fixture is to see if you can turn it with a closed fist, if you can it is a good choice.


  •   A pedestal sink is a better choice than a cabinet because it allows a seated person to get closer to the sink, making it much easier for them to reach the faucets.
  • Lever handles are the best choice for shower and sink fixtures.
  • Installing a hand held shower nozzle can make bathing easier for anyone; make sure the hose is long enough to allow for a comfortable reach even if the individual is seated.
  • If your remodeling project includes new walls, be sure to reinforce them to allow for later installation of grab bars around the tub, shower, and toilet areas.


  • Closets can be the best or worst part of any bedroom. To maximize closet usefulness, install shelves or drawers on smooth tracks with adjustable rods. Eliminate overhead shelves where things are stored and forgotten, and bring things down within easy reach.
  • Good lighting is essential. Installation can take only minutes.
  • If space is an issue, pocket doors or folding doors may be the answer.

All rooms

  • 36” doorways allow easy access to a room for anyone, and help avoid scraping walls and molding when moving furniture and appliances.
  • Flooring in your home should be easy to care for and easy to walk and move furniture over. It is difficult to maneuver a wheel chair or walker over high pile carpet. An added plus: hardwood, tile, or low nap carpets are all easier to keep clean than high pile carpet.

Adding on to your home

  • If you plan to add on with an exit door, a no-step entry is best.
  • Stairs of any kind make moving furniture and appliances more difficult and that step could prevent friends and family from visiting your home.
  • Hallways should be at least 32” wide. Narrow hallways make moving anything more difficult.
  • Make sure the addition has proper lighting. Place outlets 27” from the floor to prevent having to bend down to plug something in. Use rocker-type light switches when possible; they can be operated with a closed hand.

Judith S. Williams,

Housing Specialist, Disability Advocates of Kent County


Adaptive Technology: The Perfect Union of Universal Design and Technology

Technology is a body of knowledge available to society. Universal Design is a concept that considers human diversity across the life-span to create design solutions that work for all users. A union between the two produces Adaptive Technology.

Adaptive Technology takes existing technology and adapts it so that it can be used by a broad spectrum of people in the same way Universal Design seeks to create design solutions that work for all users.

Adaptive technology holds enormous promise for improving the lives of millions of people.

There is virtually no end to the ways technology can be used to better existing products and services and create new opportunities for the people that use them.

Before we go any further in this endeavor to understand the union of Technology and Universal Design, I would like to reassure anyone reading this article who still cannot program the VCR that the beauty of the union between Universal Design and Technology is that product design must include the third principle of Universal Design: Simple, Intuitive Use (see sidebar on page 18). This means that use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level, so the instructions for a well-designed product should not look like a novel.

Rest assured, a well-designed product will be an asset to your home and not a reason to look for the aspirin.

Now, let’s look at technological advances that can make living easier.

We will start with something common that will be familiar to everyone:

The Remote Control

Since 1955, when Zenith engineer Eugene Polley invented the first wireless TV remote (the “Flashmatic”), remote control devices have become commonplace. Garage doors, TVs, alarm systems, fans, cameras and even blinds can now be controlled with a remote control device. Doors can be opened and closed, even locked and unlocked, with a remote, and newer model vehicles have remotes to open trunks and sliding doors on passenger vans. Universal remotes for televisions eliminate the need for separate remotes for cable and the VCR. The only difficulty with remotes is finding them when you need them, but even that problem has been solved with the remote control watch. Many of us see the remote as a convenience, but for some people remotes are much more; they are a form of independence. Remote control devices provide the ability to do more without assistance from others.

The Sensor

“They are everywhere!” But that can be a good thing. A sensor is an electrical eye, an input device such as a motion detector, magnetic switch, pressure sensitive switch, or current or light-sensing device.

One of the greatest values of a sensor is that it can do what a person

can’t: and that is being constantly aware of a situation. I am a big fan of the touch-less bathrooms popping up in many public places.

Sensors on faucets, soap dispensers, toilets and hand dryers greatly reduce the possibility of cross contamination because there is no need to touch them. This creates a cleaner environment overall, and what public bathroom couldn't benefit from that?

Providing security is the most common use of a motion detector. Most everyone is familiar with home security systems that use sensors placed on doors and windows that send a signal to a main terminal if the area being monitored is tampered with. This same technology can also be used to monitor people and appliances inside a home; a pressure sensor placed under a mattress can alert a caretaker that a child is out of bed and motion detectors can tell you the location of a person in the home. Sensors can save lives; sensors installed in and around a pool can prevent possible drowning by alerting the homeowner that someone is in or near the pool.  Sensors that detect moisture help prevent flooding in basements by turning on a sump pump.

Automobiles have dozens of sensors, and you will know when one of them stops working because another sensor will cause a light on your dashboard to come on.

Voice Activation

Voice-activated technology is available in many products, including stereos, telephones and lamps. With voice-activated lighting you'll never have to enter a dark room again; you can even dim the lights with a one-word command. You may be surprised to learn that there is a voice-activated remote control on the market for less than a hundred dollars! Convenient and inexpensive...the best of both worlds!

Listening technology enables products to respond to specific commands without any physical effort. This feature is a perfect match for the Universal Design principle Number 6: Low physical effort: the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Voice recognition technology used in conjunction with computer software provides access to products and services that persons with limited abilities might not otherwise be able to use, such as creating email and surfing the Web. With voice recognition technology, the user can control the personal computer by speaking commands. This technology has come a long way in a short time; the first products required the speaker to use only proper English and to speak very slowly and there were no allowances for accents or speech impediments. Newer products allow the user to speak naturally, are much faster and are available in different languages and dialects.

Voice Print Technology

It sounds like science fiction, but voice print technology is part of the real world. Your voice is as unique as your fingerprints and some major companies are considering how to use it to verify a customer’s identity. The goal is to save money, reduce credit card fraud and eliminate identity theft. Internet crime (or cyber crime) is a big problem, with more than $700 million in online sales lost to fraud in 2001.

Identity theft is a fairly new problem that evolved with the electronic age. In the past, most people who assumed another person’s identity would do so by searching for a deceased person’s information. Now criminals are a looking at identities of the living to gain access to personal information, and to obtain credit, bank accounts and other property.

Voiceprint authentication could be the answer to these problems.  It would work something like this: with a transaction, all the usual information would be needed (account number, name etc.). But before a transaction could be completed, the caller would be asked to repeat a phrase for voice printing, then that sample would be compared to a voiceprint on file for verification. For cost savings, all of this would be done through an automated system, eliminating the need to hire employees.

We will have to wait and see if the human voice replaces three pieces of I.D. and a major credit card currently needed for some transactions, but the same technology could be used in other applications (on-line purchases, for example) that would allow some persons with disabilities to lead easier lives.

Touch Sensitive Control

Touch controls are no longer just the wave of the future; the touch screen technology used at ATM machines, informational kiosks and supermarkets is making its way into the home. Simply put, this technology uses ultra sonic waves to make a digital map of the display screen’s surface. When the screen is touched, the wave is interrupted and the information is transmitted to the computer for processing.

The simplicity of these products is their greatest asset. Touch sensitive technology can be very easy to operate for many people with dexterity impairments since there are no knobs to turn or buttons to push, and, they can be just plain fun to use! Washers, dryers and some thermostats already have touch controls and many more products will have touch features in the future. (I personally hope that the next product will be a touch-sensitive keyboard for quieter typing in the


How Can Adaptive Technology Work for Me?

Now that we have covered a few of the hundreds of applications of Technology and Universal Design, you may be wondering how it all fits into your home. You could incorporate all of the aforementioned applications and more into what is being called a “Smart Home” or a “Smart House” (i.e.: a home that includes anything that gives you remote or automatic control of things around the home). Not quite the Jetson’s, but very impressive just the same.

Adding automation to an existing home can be very affordable. You could start with any number of low cost products, such as a simple plug in device that automatically turns a fan on or off according to air temperature. This is an energy saving device and a very good place to start, since it has a relatively low cost of about twenty dollars.

The beauty of home automation is that there are so many options, including surveillance, lighting, irrigation, home theater, security, communications, and environmental controls. With the broad selection of home automation products available, you can control just about anything you wish in your home. From a low cost universal remote for your TV to a high-end computer interface system that allows voice control of lighting, heating and security, everyone can benefit from home automation on some level.

The Bottom Line:

A body of knowledge available to society: that is the definition of Technology.  Combined with the Universal Design concept of creating design solutions that work for all users, Technology can be made accessible to a broader range of society. The resulting Adaptive Technology can enhance our lives and make them fuller and richer,

regardless of our abilities. 

By Judith S. Williams, Housing Specialist, Disability Advocates of Kent County



CONTACT:       Jocelyn Dettloff,

                            Disability Advocates of Kent County

                            (616) 949-1100, ext. 237

ZeroStep Visionary Award Winners Announced

Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 5, 2005

On Friday, September 16th the winners of the ZeroStep Visionary Awards were presented with their awards during the Susan Borgman Memorial Concert at the Wealthy Street Theatre.  All concert proceeds benefit Disability Advocates of Kent County’s latest endeavor—ZeroStep.

ZeroStep is the one-stop resource providing Universal Design, assessment, consultation, and education to create homes, whether built or remodeled, that are designed and equipped for a lifetime. 

The awards recognized people in the community who are champions of using and promoting Universal Design as the future of home design.  The builders who received the awards were Fred and Don Cheslek of Cheslek Construction and Rich and Cindy Kogelschatz of Heartland Builders.  Pat Shellenbarger of the Grand Rapids Press also received a Visionary award for writing about Universal Design and promoting other disability related issues.  J. W. Messner also received a ZeroStep Partnership Award for working with Disability Advocates to create the ZeroStep campaign and promote the concept.


“As the population ages and has a desire to remain in their homes as they age rather than going into an institutional setting, homes that do not present any barriers (such as steps) will be in high demand.  ZeroStep is the answer to preparing for the demand increase that is on the horizon,” says Jocelyn Dettloff, Disability Advocates’ Development Director.

This was the first annual concert benefiting ZeroStep.  Disability Advocates will be on the lookout over the next year for the recipients of the 2006 ZeroStep Visionary Awards.



Date:               August 23, 2005

For Release:  Immediately  

Contact:          Judith Williams, Program Coordinator, 949-1100 x249


ZeroStep promotes universal design in West Michigan


GRAND RAPIDS, MI.  The concept of universal design for homes is gaining momentum throughout the United States. The topic was even part of a mini-White House Conference in June of 2005. And now the concept is coming to West Michigan.


Universal design for homes is the art of creating environments that are attractive and user friendly for people of all ages and abilities. It is the ONLY design concept that consciously designs to accommodate peoples’ differences—not their similarities.


Judith Williams, Program Coordinator for ZeroStep – the just-launched service provided by Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) to promote the benefits of universal design in West Michigan – knows how beautiful and functional these homes are. “The first thing people notice about universally designed homes is how spacious and comfortable they seem,” she says. “Wider hallways and doors add to a home’s comfort level, just as a no-step entrance reduces effort when moving furniture or groceries into the home.”


The importance of the ZeroStep service is underscored by those in attendance at the August 29, 2005 launch and invitation-only reception at the newly opened Home Builders Association headquarters on the East Beltline. State Representatives Jerry Kooiman and Tom Smith – along with Mary Ellen Sullivan from Congressman Vern Ehlers office – will be joined by builders and other professionals for an overview of universal design and a briefing about the ZeroStep communications plan for the community.


What makes a home "universal"? It's simple. Because of universal design, people who are very different can all enjoy the same home environment. Just as importantly, that home will be there for all its inhabitants even when their needs change because of aging, accident or illness.

Most universal design features just make good sense. “Once you bring them into your home,” Williams reports, “you'll wonder how you ever lived without them.” Universal design features include:

  • No-step entry. No one needs to use stairs to get into a universal home or into the home's main rooms.
  • Wider doorways. Doorways that are 32-36 inches wide are more convenient for everyone, making it easy to move big things in and out of the house.
  • Wider hallways. Hallways should be 36-42 inches wide. That way, everyone and everything moves more easily from room to room.
  • Extra floor space. Everyone feels less cramped because there is more room to maneuver.
  • Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great. Try using these devices when your arms are full of packages. You'll never go back to knobs or standard switches.

Williams says that ZeroStep will provide information to the public about the many benefits of universal design and make referrals to selected architects and builders. ZeroStep will also offer certification classes to architects and builders who want to learn more about universal design concepts.

The ZeroStep service is supported by funding from the Grand Rapids Community Foundatiton, the Steelcase Foundation, and the Slemons Foundation.

Additional information about the ZeroStep service and universal design is available by calling 616.949.1100 x249.


ZeroStep 616.949.1100 x249