My personal journey with Universal Design

February 23, 2013 at 8:19 am Leave a comment

My house is 10 years old.  Unlike the national statistic of the median age of homes in the United States being 36, our house is ten years old.  We built our house ten years ago, incorporating Universal Design features.  It is because my husband has a C5-C6 incomplete spinal cord injury and utilizes a manual and power wheelchair for his mobility that many people will say to me, ‘you built your house for your husband, right?’  My response is, we built the house for the both of us.

The fact that you can walk into my house and never know that a person with a disability lives there is testament that Universal Design can be invisible, beautiful, provide convenience, and be flexible and ready for you when you need it.  It is important to note that my husband is independent in our home; but, so am I, and so is anyone else when they come over to visit.  I was 30 years old when we moved into our new house, and I proudly turned 40 last month.  I am thankful that I have a pretty uneventful medical history, so far, but am more thankful that my house was built with Universal Design in mind, because these features have intermittently been important to me, personally, over the last ten years.

We are all temporarily able-bodied.  No one can predict if, when and where illness, injury or disability may strike.  At age 33 I was in a car accident on the highway.  I was lucky to only walk away with an abdominal contusion and a triangular fibrocartilage complex injury (think pinky finger side of your wrist) of my right (dominant) hand.  I had to wear a brace for 3 months, all day except for when bathing.  Not only was it bulky, I would have pain and difficulty with any task that would rotate or deviate my wrist as well as grip and some pinch.  Automatic can openers never made me so happy!  However, I was even more thankful to have loop/pull handles on cabinets and drawers and lever handles on my doors and even the faucets and shower mix valve!

At age 35, after having many issues with my contact lenses and glasses (which I had worn for over 20 years at that point) I decided to get Lasik surgery.  I was not a candidate for the standard ‘flap’ Lasik surgery, but rather Photo Refractive Keratectomy (PRK) Lasik.  There is a big difference in both procedure as well as recovery time.  Unlike the glamorous ability to see clearly and be ‘work-ready’ within 24-48 hours after traditional Lasik, PRK requires up to a one-week recovery process (no work recommended) and then vision is to full potential in about 6-8 weeks.  Sure, why not!  My initial healing process had me out of work that entire first week.  I was wearing extremely dark goggles throughout the day, due to extreme sensitivity to any light for the first half of the week.  By the end of the week, my vision was at its best 20/40 at times (which allowed me to drive), but would get worse as the day went on.  I found myself sitting at meetings or working with clients and they would be somewhat clear (that was the 20/40) then I would blink and they would be a big blur.  This roller coaster of vision lasted for about two months.  I am now happily 20/20.  However, during this time I was incredibly thankful for the color contrasting within my home to help me distinguish between objects within a space, especially in my kitchen.  I also benefited from the ability to adjust the lights lower when it bothered my eyes in the beginning, and increase the lighting later when I was not quite yet to 20/20.  I was also very thankful that we chose bull-nosed edging for our counter top as I bumped it frequently, without having good acuity and depth perception in the beginning, and was not hurt by any sharp edges.  This was a choice that was specifically originally made with multiple users of the space in mind: one being my husband, and the other was the forward thinking of possibly having children in the home (lifespan design) and looking at creating a safer environment by eliminating sharp edges.  Ironically, I also benefited.   Lastly, having front controls on the stove as well as the washer/dryer provided increased access and safety, as I found myself needing to get closer to locate them and to see the control/cycle.

Last year, I finally learned first hand what it feels like to be in so much back pain that you are literally stuck and can’t move.  We see this scenario in so many comedy sketches and movies, but never really ‘get it’ until it happens.  After having slept on a not so good hotel bed for two days, then a hospital couch for four days while my Mom was hospitalized, along with carrying heavy bags and helping move my Mom’s things, within a week I found myself up in the middle of the night in extreme pain and stuck, seated at the side of my bed.  My 39-year-old back had enough, and my husband, while seated in his wheelchair, had to help me off the bed.  After a doctor visit I was able to get the pain under control, but found that I had difficulty with most reach that was at or above shoulder level as well as below waist level.  This included any bending and reaching, even when I was using the best body mechanics to get the job done.  I was never so thankful for my pullout shelving!  This was truly an amazing benefit that was just a convenience for me, before this injury.  I was also very thankful for having placed many of my frequently used items at an easy level to reach, by using lowered cabinets or adjustable height shelving throughout the spaces within my home, where I did not have to rely on overhead reach or extreme bending for accessing storage.  My washer and dryer, being front loaders, created ease with completing laundry during this time.  Even my side-by-side refrigerator allowed me to access both the fridge and freezer without having to do overhead reach; I am on the shorter side at 5’3” 🙂    The pullout shelving within the fridge was the icing on the cake.  Even the design and organization of our pantry closet which places the dog and cat food bins at a higher level off the floor, allowing access for both myself and my husband without the need for bending, provided relief and gave me the ability to continue feeding my furry children.

My story is not unique.  In fact, it is pretty typical for the average person to have a temporarily disabling condition that impacts performance of everyday and meaningful activities.  The problem is, it is temporary.  We get back to our busy lives and forget what happened and how our environment made the condition even more disabling; until it happens again.

Frequently, when I talk about Universal Design I hear people say, “I don’t need that yet” or “It’s not for me, but it might help my grandmother”.  Universal Design is not ‘accessible design’.  It is not design just for someone who is ‘old’ or already has illness, injury or disability.     It is design for everyone.  I hope that my journey with Universal Design truly represents the level of convenience it has afforded me when I did not personally need it, but how it became invaluable, when I did.

Here’s to hoping this provides the proverbial A-ha!  moment 🙂

What is your Universal Design journey?

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Entry filed under: Accessibility, Aging-In-Place design, Bathrooms, Home Safety, Kitchens, Universal Design. Tags: , , , , , , .

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