ADA: Universal Home Design vs Handicap Accessible Home Design

Home modifications by occupational therapist (OT) based on principles of universal design and accessibility.

Universal/accessible design of the home from an occupational therapy and a construction perspective. This blog is part of a quest for cool, convenient, functional design that makes life safer, easier, and as maintenance-free as possible. It's about the lifestyle.
I just read an excellent article by Diane Bright OTR/L regarding terminology utilized for universal design, 'Consumer Speak: Relating Universal Design to the Consumer in Their Terms.'  The article discussed the low demand for universal design, the stigma of disability associated with universal design and the terminology associated with universal design that perpetuates disabled and aged connotations. 

Diane made some excellent points.  For those of us who support and encourage universal design we need to assist in changing the public's view of universal design and take the spot light off handicap and on to beautiful and useful.

    Universal Design Bathroom             vs      Handicap Accessible Bathroom

So what is universal design and where did it come from?

Universal design in the United States first came on the scene with the disability and social inclusion movement in the 1950s.  There were strong ties between disability advocates, barrier-free design and universal design.  This created a historical connection between people with disabilities and universal design.

What is universal design?

Universal design is basically 'design for all.'  The Center for Universal Design defines universal design as, "the design of products and environments to be able to be used by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design.'

The strong connection in consumer's minds between universal design and disabilities has made universal design seem sterile and institutional.  For the most part, consumers do not identify with universal design because in doing so they are identifying themselves with disabilities or flaws-negative connotations.

Handicap Accessible Kitchen

Universal Design Kitchen

Universal Design Kitchen

Communicating Universal Design

"What finally decides the form of a dwelling and molds the spaces and their relationship is the vision the people have of the Ideal Life the physical embodiment of an ideal environment." (Rapoport, 1969. p.4)

To consumers the ideal environment is their home.  The intent of universal design is to create a home for all people, which should increase the market value of a home.  But in the U.S. universal design features have been so deeply associated with functional loss or limitation consumers just aren't going there. 

Changing the way we communicate universal design features and utilizing more 'ideal life' friendly terminology may increase the acceptance of universal design concepts and meanings.  Changing our language from an 'accessible floor plan' to 'an open floor plan' or instead of 'wheelchair roll-in shower' we use the word 'spa shower.'  These changes in terminology can take universal design from ugly to beautiful and elegant.

Spa Shower

Roll-In Shower

Snaidero Skyline kitchen

Consumer friendly language is the first step in changing the connotations around universal design.  Professionals connected to building and designing homes must consider changing how they present universal design.  Presenting universal design in terms of advocacy/function based design is much less desireable than consumer benefits/life enhancing. 

Consumer vs Professional Language (Diane Bright, OTR/L, MSc, ID)

Consumer Based                                       Professional Language

Welcoming Entry With                                Ramped Wheelchair Access Front Access
Graded Garden Walkway

Master Bath with Spa Shower                      Wheelchair Roll-In Shower

Accessible Pathway Around                        Wheelchair Accessible Route for Fire
Entire Home                                                Egress

Custom Kitchen with Flexible Features         Wheelchair Accessible Counter and Sink
for Seated and Standing Use                        with Roll Under Access

Mud Room with Cleanup Area Wash           Wheelchair Covered Egress Entry With
Directly off Garage                                      Wheelchair Wash

Open Dining and Living Room Floor            Wheelchair Accessible Space

Atrium Doors to Deck                                  Wheelchair Accessible Doorway

12 comments: said...

Just found your blog, what an excellent point about the right "language" to make accessible design more friendly. I would like to also request permission from someone to reuse some of your kitchen/bath photos? or find your source for them. I work with a very new consortium of people in Chattanooga TN just getting started building universally accessible homes and are looking for some examples to use on website. If you could contact me, I would appreciate it. said...

What a great blog! I love the information about the right language. I am working with a group in Tennessee to build universally accessible homes, first in our area! Could you tell me your source for your photos of kitchens and baths or give me permission to use some on the website I am building? We would definately like to link back to your blog, very nice!

Anonymous said...

Love the circular designed accessible kitchen. Can you point me to a website for more detail on this design - Dimensions, etc? Modifying our home for our daughter . . .

Anonymous said...

With 60-yrs experience as Kitchen-
Bath Specialist w/ 5-NKBA awards, was put into a wheel chair for five months, living alone. You become very innovative about sur-vival, and I created "Minimal Movement," since I could only stand a minute, with conventional 20-yr.old kitchen.This simply puts things you RE-USE while wheelchair bound.My "INDEPENDENCE"was without cost, or Universal Design.

Anonymous said...

A perfect example of "ASSISTED INDE
PENDENCE" with important reusable
items accessible even when wheel-chair bound. Independence is a more
acceptable term for seniors than
Universal Design. Other accesibile
aids exist to speed up work for all,
including healthy chefs.

Karen Koch said...

I would love to speak with or email with the bath specialist. I could learn alot from you. Please contact me at

Anonymous said...

It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it
is time to be happy. I've read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions.
Perhaps you can write next articles referring to this article.
I want to read even more things about it!

Feel free to surf to my web site :: Kristan

Karen Koch said...

Thanks Kristan,

I've been trying to figure out what people would like me to write about regarding universal design and accessibility. I'll write up something and send it your way.

Since you are a shopaholic maybe you could send me some of your cool finds for home design that maybe could be tailored to the universal design crowd.

Thanks for the comment.

Unknown said...

I believe that ppl are more likely to be in the 50 y/o range that tend to be remodeling, building or purchasing the last home they expect to purchase. So, "aging in place" may be more widely accepted and understood.

Karen Koch said...

I think it is becoming more understood. My hope is that if people hear aging in place they will know it doesn't mean a 'hospital-like' home, it just means making your house work to fit your lifestyle. That's what Occupational Therapists are for.:-)

Jennifer said...

I am in the process of designing an accessible bath for my daughter who is 10. She walks now but we don't know what the future may hold. I would like a vanity with storage, therefore I am leaning toward a regular vanity. If I need to adapt it in the future, is there an easy way to do so? Should I look for a certain kind of vanity ie: one that has doors in front of sink so they can be removed? I have spent countless hours scouring the internet for a vanity that would make sense without being custom or breaking the bank. I would love some advice in how to adapt one in the future or one that is accessible with storage already! Brands, examples are appreciated! Thank you!

Karen Koch said...


There are not any 'modifiable' vanities on the market that I know of but there is an easy way to get around this. Our company Functional Homes modifies vanities for our clients on a regular basis.

When you are looking for a vanity for your bathroom look for one that is 34" tall (including the counter top.) Most vanities have doors under the sink, look for a vanity that has 2 doors under the sink your goal being a 36" wide space under the sink so that when you are ready to modify the vanity you have the roll under space you require.

As important as the vanity base is making sure you get a sink that is conducive to wheelchair accessibility. Find a sink that has a 7" deep basin or less and that has the drain in the back of the sink.

Good luck Jennifer, please let me know how it goes or if you need any assistance.

Karen (