My aunt Nuala was in a serious car accident a few years ago.
She got caught in the middle of a three car pile-up at a dodgy 4-way junction with no traffic lights.
She was wheelchair bound for many months and luckily after some intensive and very painful physiotherapy she managed to get back on to her feet and could eventually walk again.
That said she still has mobility problems today that she’ll have for the rest of her life.
Most people with all their abilities intact frequently take them for granted, and don’t anticipate the physical or sensory limits that age, medical conditions or other circumstances can create.
The current fashionable name for designing buildings for both fully abled & disabled people as well as future proofing for the onset of age is known as Universal Design.
Introducing Universal Design
Universal Design, for many, implies designing for wheelchair usage.
However it also caters for those of us who aren’t as nimble as we once were or those sight & hearing difficulties or have trouble using their hands.
Depending on how old you are it might be an idea to future proof your home if you’re going to get the builders in now.
This blog post will cover some fundamentals of Universal Design so you can incorporate them into your home.
It’s becoming more common practise to have a more universal design in new buildings so they are just as welcoming and inclusive for disabled people as they are for the able.
Unfortunately, when it comes to renovating homes we are dealing with a property that has been initially put together without any consideration for the disabled.
On top of this there is a massive misconception of what disabled actually embodies.
The conventional view of a disabled person is a wheelchair user with good upper-body mobility, perhaps disabled by an accident later in life.
But wheelchair users only make up 4% of disabled people.
The vast majority at a whopping 70% are not disabled in mobility terms, rather they have difficulties with hearing & vision.
These two factors when coupled together can make it unnecessarily difficult for disabled people to get a renovation design that truly works for them and their daily lives.
Interior design is of greatest help to disabled people when it differentiates sections of the building and highlights its features, such as doorways and changes in corridor directions.
Contrary to popular belief, high light levels can reduce the ability to navigate.
More important to perception is modelling, or the contrast between edges & surfaces.
Modelling is best generated by a combination of indirect lighting such as that provided by uplighters to provide an overall low glare illumination with highlighting where change of direction is involved.
Very reflective surfaces should be avoided.
Carpets lower the general noise level in buildings, which is helpful to people with hearing difficulties and patterning on floor coverings can be used as a navigational aid.
But any covering with deep pile or pronounced weave is unhelpful.
The pile significantly increases resistance to wheeled traffic, sometimes making movement impossible; spongy underlays have a similar though less pronounced effect.
Strong weave patterns and deep pile can even divert electric vehicles from their intended course.
Low pile and loop carpets with firm underlays are best.
The adjacent picture is of a cork floor.
Circulation is of course a massive concern for the wheelchair user and may mean considerable alteration to an existing property.
If this is not possible for whatever reason then a compromise may need to be met between a limited alteration and certain manoeuvrability problems not fully resolved.
That said, houses built in the late 19th and early 20th century are usually more suitable for modification as they are generally more spacious.
The entry to the house should not have a step greater than 20mm with a hallway width of around 1200mm wide.
All other corridors should be at least 1500mm wide with 810mm clear width in doorways.
Universal Design for Bedrooms
It is recommended that at least one bedroom is at ground floor level and has easy access to the bathroom.
Ease of movement should be at the forefront of the layout with at least 800mm clear floor space around the bed.
Light switches and power outlets should be at a consistent height that is easy to reach without excessive body movements, the ideal height should be around 1m off the floor.
Universal Design for Kitchens
When it comes to kitchens, installing a wall oven at an appropriate height (typically 30 to 40 inches from the floor) and having a cooktop with an open area below it are both great for wheelchair users.
The mere act of separating oven from cooktop, however, makes the kitchen more accommodating to everyone using it.
This setup does sacrifice some storage. Separate cooking appliances also tend to cost more, and then there are installation costs.
To make sure cooking appliances will be easy for everyone to use, avoid knobs-choose touch controls.
In some cases, touchpad appliances are also among the technologically most sophisticated, including induction cooktops and programmable ovens.
Drawer-style appliances are also handy for the mobility impaired. In a two-drawer dishwasher, the lower drawer is easy to reach for someone in a wheelchair.
With a bottom-mount freezer, they can reach the freezer drawer and the bottom few shelves in the refrigerator, too.
Side-by-side refrigerators are another accessible option. For cabinets, open shelving is recommended, so people don’t have to negotiate around open doors or drawers.
Levers are best for faucets so those who have difficulty using their hands don’t have to grip the handle to get the water flowing or adjust temperature.
Also, I would recommend a gooseneck, impaired or not, if you want to put a big pot in a sink, you don’t want to have to negotiate around the spout.
The kitchen should also allow for a 1500mm turning circle for wheelchairs users too.
Safety is always an issue in the kitchen, of course, but in universal design, it takes on extra dimension.
For example, a family with a sight-impaired person might want to choose an induction cooktop for maximum safety, as its burners only heat up when magnetically conductive cookware is placed on them.
Universal Design for Bathrooms
Safety is of greater concern in the bathroom, where ease of use boils down to working the faucets, getting on and off the toilet and getting in and out of the tub.
I suggest avoiding a tub altogether and going with a shower only because it’s easier to enter and exit.
If a home has a separate tub and shower, that’s one thing, but if there’s only room for one or the other, the homeowners might want to think about just having a shower.
Ideal dimensions for a shower should be 1200 x 1200mm.
Tubs with doors are another option.
They have seats in them, and the doors are guaranteed not to leak.
That said they are very pricey.
I also recommends investing in a comfort-height toilet, one whose bowl is about 16 inches tall, two inches taller than a standard model.
Those thick seats that people use to modify a standard-height toilet are just awful. It’s helpful if you find it hard to get up, or if you have long legs. It’s not so good for people who are 5 feet 4 or shorter.
Two major safety issues in the bath are slipping and scalding. Adding traction to
floors certainly helps maintain a stable footing, but the best way to confront this issue goes on the walls: grab bars.
Most people don’t do this, but it’s a good idea to include grab bars in your shower.
The safety benefits are indisputable, but the fact that they need to be anchored to the wall typically makes installing one a more arduous undertaking than, say, adding a towel bar.
This is why, even if people don’t want grab bars now, putting in sufficient blocking and backer board so they can put them in down the road without any hassle can be a wise idea.
Technological advances have made installation easier for some models, and more importantly, the institutional look is no longer standard for grab bars.
You can find really nice ones now.
To reduce hot-water dangers in the bath, use anti-scald thermostatic valves.
Shower-doors should swing outwards so that someone who falls won’t keep the door from opening-should apply to the bathroom door as well.
In well-executed universal design, virtually anybody should be able to use a given space.
With more stylish products and sensitive design, it may become increasingly impossible to tell whether a kitchen or bath was designed for a wheelchair user, a blind person, someone with arthritis, or a fully capable person.
Thanks for checking our Mobility post! If you have any questions then just pop them into the comments section below.
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