By Rosemarie Rossetti, PhD
On June 13, 1998, my husband Mark Leder and I went for a bicycle ride on a rural wooded bike trail in Granville, Ohio. After riding for a few minutes, Mark thought he heard a gunshot and slowed down to investigate. As he scanned the scene, he saw a large tree falling. He shouted, “Stop!” But the warning was too late. Instantly, I was crushed by a 7,000-pound tree and paralyzed from the waist down.
Coming home from the hospital in a wheelchair in July 1998 after my spinal cord injury, I realized how my home intensified my disability. My husband and I knew that we had to sell our home and find something more suitable.
Since the 1980s, architects, interior designers, and other design and building professionals have embraced the concept of universal design, which is a framework for creating living and working spaces and products to benefit the widest range of people in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Universal design is human-centered, accommodating people of all sizes, ages, and abilities.
Building the Universal Design Living Laboratory
My husband is 6’4″ tall while I am 4’2″ seated in my wheelchair. Our heights and reaches were factors in the design of our home so that we would both be accommodated.
In September 2004, we hired architect Patrick Manley to draw the house plans for our new home. Mark and I bought an acre and a half lot in December of 2006. We broke ground in September 2009, and moved in May 2012.
In addition to being accessible, universal design and green building construction principles were followed. Mark and I served as the general contractors of our home, named the Universal Design Living Laboratory. (www.UDLL.com) We received the highest levels of certification from three universal design certification programs, making our home the highest rated universal design home in North America.
The first noticeable improvement when I moved into our new home was the ease in navigating on the hardwood and tile floors. My shoulders were no longer strained as they had been on the carpet in my previous home. I realized that my carpal tunnel syndrome pain and numbness in my hands was lessened.
Living in the Universal Design Living Laboratory for the past seven years has given me a unique perspective. As a person who uses a wheelchair, I have learned the importance of space planning, and that small differences in the width of a door, the height of a threshold or the slope of a ramp can impact a person’s independence. Safety features like grab bars in the toileting area and shower have kept me from falling, and they make transfers easier.
Kitchen Design Keys
As others plan to remodel or build, they need to consider features that allow occupants independence. Universal design features in the kitchen include the overall design of the circulation pattern, cabinet design, countertop height, and appliance selection.
- A minimum 5-foot turning radius throughout the kitchen allows a person who uses a wheelchair the ability to do a 360-degree turnaround. Power wheelchairs and scooters may need additional space.
- Side-hinged ovens are preferable to those hinged at the bottom, installed at a height that is easy to reach from a wheelchair.
- Cooktop controls and the ventilation control panel at the front and at waist height make them accessible by all.
- Multiple countertop heights, such as 40, 34, and 30 inches, accommodate a diverse population. A 30-inch countertop with knee space underneath works well for someone who remains seated during meal preparation.
- At least half of the storage space should be accessible from a seated position, including drawers and cabinet shelves.
- Cooktops and sinks with knee space beneath make for user-friendly work areas.
- A dishwasher raised 16 inches off the floor eliminates the need to bend down low.
- A side-by-side refrigerator/freezer provides easier access from a seated position.
Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D. is an internationally known speaker, trainer, consultant, and author of the Universal Design Toolkit. To get a free chapter and learn more about the Universal Design Living Laboratory, visit UDLL.com. To contact Rosemarie and learn about her speaking services, visit RosemarieSpeaks.com.