Universal Design Goes Beyond the Home

Photo credit: Washington Access Fund

Have you ever watched a captioned television at an airport? Were you thankful for the curb cut when pushing your baby stroller up a sidewalk? Did you appreciate the automatic door opener at the grocery store? These are all examples of "universal design."

Universal design considers all aspects of the built environment—homes, mobility routes, landscapes, commercial developments, products and life space, including equipment and architecture—with the goal of making them accessible to every person, regardless of age or ability.

In 2000, the Aging and Disability Services Advisory Council's Housing Task Force carved out a plan for education and implementation of universal design principles as an effective means to enable persons with disabilities and older adults to "age in place." Thus, the Northwest Universal Design Council (NWUDC) was born, providing a local forum for collaboration and discussion on universal design. With a mission to create environments for all, the Council comprises a diverse group of designers, architects, builders, and advocates for older adults and people with disabilities.

In recent months, NWUDC has embraced the complementary and vast world of assistive technology. Assistive or adaptive technology allows persons with disabilities greater independence in their home and work life. Assistive technology could include sidewalk curb cuts, speech recognition software, hearing loops, large print materials, and wheelchairs or walkers.

In January, several assistive technology-related organizations presented at the quarterly NWUDC meeting. Frances Pennell, executive director of the Washington Access Fund, described how their organization can help pay for home modifications or assistive devices not usually covered by Medicare. Laura Berry, owner of Beverly's Daughter, spoke about her concept store that provides products for caregivers to help in caring for their loved ones.

Cheri Perazzoli, Hearing Loss Association of Washington, presented an exciting movement to install hearing loops in public spaces throughout the Seattle area. A hearing loop is a type of assistive technology that works in conjunction with hearing instruments (hearing aids) and cochlear implants. Hearing loops pick up the intended signal (music or speech) via a microphone and transmit the signal wirelessly to hearing instruments and cochlear implants. The hearing loop provides a clear signal to the listener that is not degraded by distance, background noise and reverberation.

Brianna Blaser and Doug Haymen, from University of Washington DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), described how their program helps students with disabilities to succeed in an academic setting. DO-IT promotes universal design in physical spaces such as classrooms, information technology such as websites, instruction, and services. In addition, DO-IT provides resources for students with disabilities, educators, postsecondary faculty and administrators, librarians, employers, parents, and mentors.

Following this program, some NWUDC members toured the University of Washington's Access Technology Center. The center provides resources to improve access to computing for students, faculty, and staff. Resources include speech-to-text software, screen magnification, and keyboard and mouse alternatives. These resources could be used in housing design and supportive services for older adults.

There are more resources in the community. Microsoft has showrooms to demonstrate assistive technology and centers where consultants can help you evaluate your needs and choose the appropriate device. Another resource, the STAR (Special Technology Access Resource) Center was opened in 1999 after an intensive collaboration with residents of Center Park, Seattle Housing Authority, City of Seattle, and community members. This computer lab uses peer support to help empower people to use technology, no matter their ability.

The Northwest Universal Design Council has come a long way in their plan to create environments for all. Assistive technology is just one of the universal design principles that will help us age in place.

—Andrea Yip, Aging and Disability Services