I was born with cerebral palsy, and whenever I’m comfortable discussing my disability with someone, it usually starts with a simple question: What do you notice when you’re out in public?
Perhaps the color of the sky is first, followed by the level of commotion happening on the street. Maybe there are leaves on the trees, or construction happening on the corner. I notice all of those things, but because of the physical nature of my disability, I’m also scanning what’s around me for potential obstacles: high curbs, stairs, and even cracks in the sidewalk can lead to a blockade or a bruise.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, makes it so many public spaces must accommodate my needs with solutions like curb cuts and elevators. As one of 61 million people with a disability in this country, these details make everyday life more inclusive. But because anyone can use them, they also blend into the scenery.
The same can’t necessarily describe the state of private homes, of course. Taking a tour of a common floor plan — including patio stairs, tight hallways, and slippery tubs — can present its own array of obstacles. But thankfully, according to the 2019 American Housing Survey, 3.5 million people expect to make renovations to address accessibility in the near future. They’re doing so with the merits of universal design in mind, whether they know it or not.
“Universal design is the process of creating spaces and products that are usable to all kinds of people, focusing on designing in the best way for all,” says Maegan Blau, owner of Blue Copper Design.
Construction for those with physical disabilities, as one example, may include a walk-in shower, wider door frames, lower countertops, or textured flooring, which makes it easier to accommodate wheelchairs, reach cabinets, and keep a steady balance. But the key is to make these adjustments as seamless as possible, so that these spaces are made to look as stylish as those that aren’t abiding by accessibility.
“Universal design is truly for everyone, despite widespread confusion about it only being for disabled or elderly people,” says Sarah Pruett, program director and occupational therapist at The Universal Design Project. “Everyone’s needs change over a lifetime, and even if someone in a household doesn’t have a disabling condition, most of us have at least one friend or family member who does. Universal design is equally as important for personal reasons as it is for hospitality.”
At this point, you’re probably noticing all of the different ways your home isn’t accessible. You could live in a walk-up apartment, or a house covered in thick carpet. You may have too little light, or slick floors, or lots of patterns. But before you consider the big list necessary to create an entirely universally-designed home, start by thinking small. It turns out that the same introductory change for all renovations can still work here: paint. “Current trends show spaces in all white, which appear clean and sleek,” Pruett says. “However, it can be very difficult for some people to know where one surface ends and another begins.”
For those who want to accommodate vision impairments, for instance, Blau recommends bright shades as a way to define shapes and catalog rooms: common areas versus private, first floor versus second, bedroom versus bathroom. These colors can be as bold as orange and yellow, or as traditional as black and white. But if those options aren’t appealing, then expand the search to swatches with warm undertones. “If there is enough contrast, then almost any color can be beneficial,” she says.
Besides outlining the details of surfaces and walkways — like stair edges, handrails, and baseboards — Sally Kiker, occupational therapy intern at The Universal Design Project, adds that contrast can be important for light switches and appliances, too. “If microwaves, ovens, laundry machines, and so on do not have high-contrasting colors on the controls, then they can be difficult to use, which makes them inaccessible,” she says. Other than buying new products, existing appliances can be wrapped in vinyl or covered in peel-and-stick wallpaper. Keep in mind that greens and reds are best avoided in this example — on account of color blindness — as well as combinations that might be too similar, like white on gray.
Aside from vision impairments, these guidelines can also work for those who live in multigenerational households or plan to retire in their current home. Younger eyes may have no problem adjusting to a dark room, but that isn’t necessarily the case for older ones. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of universal design is ‘aging in place,’” says Meaghan Walls, president of Assistology, LLC. “As our eyes age, we see color differently. So when choosing paint colors in regard to age, it’s important to assess how they look to 20-year-old eyes and 80-year-old ones.”
Light-on-light colors can be tough to distinguish; giving important elements of your home (say, light switches or doors) a bit of contrast against their background helps boost their visibility.
If none of these circumstances have to be addressed in your home, you can still benefit from a fresh coat of paint within the context of universal design. “Color can combat overstimulation, anxiety, depression, and sensory sensitivities,” Blau notes. “If you or your family are feeling overwhelmed, consider using soft tones, cool tones, or dark tones. If low-energy is the case, consider using saturated tones, warm tones, or a lot of whites.”
Kiker also advises people to take note of how their home is being used. “From an occupational therapy perspective, I would suggest thinking about what activities are being done in each room of the house,” she notes. “Then, try to pair that with colors to support participation in those activities.” Blue encourages calm — which Walls says should be used strategically at home, rather than all-over, for balance — while purple can heighten focus and pink can boost a sense of warmth.
When updated with inclusivity and positivity in mind, a home reflects how people hope to feel. This can be true whether they’re hosts or guests, young or old, disabled or non-disabled. Empathy gets noticed, even when it’s not said out loud.
“More often than not,” Walls says, “When we remove a barrier of one kind, we improve the experience for everyone.”