June 16, 2024


Comfortable residential structure

Universal design: The future of the American home | Business

“It’s time to re-envision the American home! The house of tomorrow will be more user-friendly, and smarter rather than larger. Universal design features like open-plan living, zero-step pathways, and hands-free fixtures are becoming mainstream – great news for people with a variety of impairments and those planning to age comfortably at home.” – Deborah Pierce, AIA, CAPS

Universal Design Getty

Universal design takes into account accessibility for all — “a common sense” design approach which employs wide doorways, open spaces, natural light and a kind of preparation for all stages of life. Photo/Getty Images.

Deborah Pierce, a Massachusetts-based architect and author of the book, “The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities,” breaks down the hows and whys of designing homes as “accessible” fit a housing need in our country. She has designed upgrades to both commercial and residential spaces. According to her website, Deb Pierce Architects, she is an “architect, advocate, coach, and project manager” for disabled individuals and for those aging in place.

Her design philosophy is “The best design for any house is responsive and inclusive.” A home should meet the needs of its inhabitants, Pierce believes, and be inclusive of the individual or individuals living there.

Deborah Pierce


She has received awards for designs specifically geared toward those with disabilities. She believes that accessible design is both common sense and a “revolutionary way of thinking about home design.” Her inspiring interview on umission.com summarizes how Pierce developed her design – “a radical rethinking of what the home is.” In doing so, making our homes universal not only makes them accessible to disabled persons, but better for all of us.

User-friendly living

In one of Pierce’s articles on Abilities.com, she explains how we all too often accept homes that are just “good enough.” Thinking “beyond the wheelchair” is the future of truly universal and accessible homes. One in five Americans has a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those with sensory disabilities, neurological disabilities, and other health-related issues need homes that enable them to move through and live within their spaces as easily as anyone else.

Glass walls or doors for those who have hearing impairments. Removing walls so that spaces can be better navigated for those in wheelchairs, or those who use canes or walkers. Individuals with sight impairment should have storage cabinets throughout their home so that they know where essentials are in every part of the home is key, Pierce said. Wider doorways, zero-step entrances and big open rooms with natural light appeal to everyone and are universal, or as Pierce says, “Universal design is commonsense design.”

Jeff Beck


Jeff Beck, CEO of Leaf Home Solutions, a company that specializes in incorporating design with function for older adults or those with disabilities said, “One of our company’s brands is Leaf Home Safety Solutions, which provides comfort and ease to our customers by improving their home’s appearance and efficiency. Many of our customers invest in their homes by introducing features and amenities that represent convenience and accessibility, such as walk-in tubs and high-quality stair lifts. Our products and installations help our customers meet their evolving needs and provide peace of mind that their home is secure for every phase of life, improving personal safety and reducing the risk of injury. If a home is not already designed with these amenities, we can provide a seamless solution.”

Walk in tubs

Walk-in tubs provide both convenience and accessibility. Photo/Jeff Beck, Leaf Home Solutions.

Staying put and aging in place has resulted in companies and developers addressing that need, as one-out-of-two people over the age of 65 has some kind of disability. Making homes universal and accessible is both practical and affordable. The future of building could very well be incorporating universal design into new communities, and not just those over 55 communities.


According to the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Congress and the President signed into law a “critical pandemic relief package with funding that will specifically benefit people with disabilities…”

Known as the American Rescue Plan, it includes nearly $13 billion in funding for home and community-based services, which will help make possible for more people with disabilities to live independently in their own homes. With the extension of tax credits and public assistance to this population, it bolsters the Affordable Care Act, (ACA) making healthcare more affordable to these and other Americans.

Storage mudroom

Rooms with storage and lever-type handles are elements of universal design. Photo/Getty Images.

Gains and history

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and the ACA helped propel economic progress, many low-income individuals with disabilities have limited options to realize homeownership and to “live middle-class lives.”

Having access to long-term services and supports (LTSS) is difficult if a physically challenged person earns too much. If they do, they can become ineligible for Medicaid, according to a publication by the AAPD. AAPD’s belief is that the federal government must provide access to LTSS, as well as disability-related healthcare coverage, so that these Americans have a shot at economic security.

open spaces to outdoors

Sliding doors and zero step entrances and exits to outdoor spaces makes sense in any home design. Photo/Getty Images.

“With the right tools, Americans with disability can live independently in their homes and communities, increase their earnings, decrease their reliance on a program like Medicaid that is for low-income people and contribute to the growth of our economy as taxpayers, consumers and small business owners,” according to ADA”s publication, “Giving Hardworking Americans with Disabilities the Chance at a Middle Class Life.”

According to the ADA established over 25 years ago, people with disabilities must have equal opportunity to be able to take part in American life. That life includes safe and affordable housing.


10 ways to make a handicap accessible home

1. Replace stairs with ramps – via portable ramps, threshold ramps and/or indoor and outdoor ramps.

2. Install a stair lift.

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3. Consider installing an elevator.

4. Remove bathroom barriers (slick tiles, tall tubs) and replace with slip-resistant surfaces.

5. Update the toilet – install handrails and/or a safety frame around it.

6. Place handrails and grab rails in key areas.

7. Replace door knobs with push/pull bars, press lever handles or automatic doorways.

8. If the home has a pool, install a pool lift.

9. Arrange furniture so that there are open pathways. Lower shelves for easier access.

10. Be mindful of surfaces that can be slick such as hardwoods or thick carpeting.

Source: 101Mobility.com.


Quick employment facts

• Disabled Americans are more likely to hold jobs with lower wages and earn less than Americans without disabilities.

• The unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is nearly double the national rate.

• Eight out of 10 people with disabilities or 48 million are out of the workforce.

• More than half of working Americans with disabilities earn under $25,000 annually and workers with disabilities on average earn $0.75 for every $1 made by workers without disabilities.

• Twenty percent of people with disabilities are employed or looking for employment, and make up 6 percent or 9 million people of the labor force. These statistics underestimate unemployment and underemployment given that many may be in and out of the labor force, and those on public support such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are not included in these national surveys.

Source: Dept of Labor, July 2013, Census Bureau, March 2013 and ADA


Latest facts – Persons with a Disability

• In 2020, 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed, down from 19.3 percent in 2019.

• The unemployment rate for persons with disability increased 12.7 percent (from 2019 vs. 2020).

• Half of all persons with a disability were age 65 and over.

• Across all age groups, persons with disabilities were much less likely to be employed than those with no disabilities.

• In 2020, 29 percent of workers with a disability were employed part-time, compared with 16 percent for those with no disability.

• Employed persons with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Feb 2021