Breaking the Barriers of Accessibility

Do you, or your parents, absolutely love your home and never want to leave it, no matter what frailties or disabilities come your way? Or are you a wheelchair user who loves traveling, but finds barriers everywhere? These barriers include stairs, small bathrooms, narrow doorways and door handles too high to reach.

If any of these apply to you, then you will want to keep up with the latest advances in universal design, or aging in place or barrier-free living. These terms refer to fully accessible, barrier-free architecture, and an environmental infrastructure that accommodates all ages and all human capabilities. These ideas are not new. The concepts are evolving, however, as I learned from the Jan. 6 edition of the new magazine Ultimate Home Design.

Wolfgang Preiser wrote “Universal Design: Paradigm for the 21st Century,” (design.ncsu.edu/cud/) which appears in the magazine. He defines universal design as the design of products and environments to be usable by all. This involves products, cars, architecture, urban infrastructure and information technology. Some examples are ramps in airports as an alternative to long stairways or far-off elevators. Preiser says that London is the most accessible city in the world.

In the home-building arena, I spoke with Susan Mack, an occupational therapist for 30 years who now advises contractors and architects nationwide. She says the basic principles governing barrier-free home design include:

In a barrier-free home no steps are allowed anywhere and walkways gently slope up to a porch and a flat threshold doorway. Next, wide doorways are throughout the house, and all rooms, including the bathroom, are spacious enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Bathrooms have curbless showers and well-placed sturdy grab bars for those who are wobbly on their feet or need assistance from a caregiver or use wheelchairs or walkers.

Kitchens have counters of different heights, allowing comfortable meal preparation for all. Household lighting and technology assist those with low vision or hearing impairments.