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Universal Design is for Everyone!

Home Elevators

Why is society being continuously exposed to advertisements and media campaigns directed at the challenges to which an aging population can relate? Frequent messages that are geared towards products and services that help make aging an enjoyable experience is happening in just about every major city and small town in our developing world, which is creating huge awareness about accessibility.

One in two people will be touched by a disability within their lifetime. Because of this statistic, exposure to advertisements such as buying a “walk in tub” or a “stair-lift” are becoming recognized as common home safety and accessibility solutions. Targeting this type of awareness to a growing aging population addresses the reality of improving our environment in order to age in place. Education about health, personal finances and care options will help us plan proactively for our futures. Proactive planning helps families overcome sudden events like an illness, while reducing slip and fall hazards to avoid further impairment. These common unforeseen tragedies can occur at any age and are manageable and often preventable. Choices made in a proactive manner can help achieve a healthier lifestyle and more comfortable home for people of all abilities to age in. By removing the risks, you can reduce the chances of having a long term disability related to falls.

There are simple ways of removing barriers that will not involve large scale renovations. The broadest concept of accessibility is having the ability to remain independent; this is achieved by removing barriers and preventing barriers in the future. Accessibility is commonly recognized as wheelchair ramps in front of homes, grab bars in bathing areas and buttons that swing doors open for wheel friendly access. Accessibility includes all those things and so much more. For those of us who have fragile bones and issues with balance, a cane or a walker makes it safer to maneuver through physical barriers. Flashing lights that indicate someone is at the front door or that the phone is ringing are examples of adapting our environment to overcome sensory barriers. Reducing clutter is another way to make life more manageable around the home. Perhaps just re-organizing household belongings and simple storage solutions are all that’s needed.

What happens if more elaborate changes are needed to make the home accessible? The first step in this process is to have a needs assessment done by an occupational therapist or other health care professional with experience in adaption to perform activities of daily living. The environmental barriers & physical needs should be analyzed and a report with recommendations be created. Designing the environment to meet all users’ needs is the next step prior to planning the renovation and this should be done by a qualified “universal design” or “barrier free design” specialist.

Before tackling any type of renovation, it’s important to fully understand the scope of work in relation to safety, independence and comfort. Suggestions can be simple ones such as installing grab bars in the washroom, elevating the toilet or converting to a hand held shower wand.  Or, the improvements can be more extensive when an opportunity to create a brand new bathroom, elevator or kitchen is advisable. However whether the modifications are large or small, they can truly end up making accessible living more enjoyable and have a large positive impact on those who choose to remain in their homes as they age.

Although our homes may be accessible, when we venture outside of them, there are a number of barriers that remain. While there have been successes in making public environments more accessible, there continues to be inconsistency – some environments are barrier-free, some partly accessible and some not accessible at all.  An example is the public transportation system. We still have to rely on a separate system within public transportation or hire private transportation services for those of us who can’t use the available routes to get to where we need to be.

We are beginning to implement new strategies to help sustain our future and prepare for our changing needs. While these messages may seem overwhelming at first, it does not mean that if we become “touched by disability” that we can no longer enjoy fulfilling lives.  Whether it’s an accident, injury or illness that changes the way we do things, it does not mean that we will lose the ability to have quality and enjoyment in our lives. Indeed, by making our environments accessible, we can continue to live with dignity and independence.

There is a growing awareness of the need for accessibility within the larger community to help make life more manageable for those of us living with disabilities.  For example, there are many more ramps, automatic doors, traffic lights that make sounds so that people with visual impairments can cross the streets with greater independence and safety.  Many movie theatres are more accessible and we can negotiate for accessible seating when we go to the concert hall, ballet or opera.

All of the ways in which barriers have been removed or are in the process of being removed in our public and private areas, makes our lives much more manageable and improves the quality of our lives today and into our futures as well. Making all environments accessible will certainly enhance and enrich the lives of the “one out of two of us who is affected by a disability”.