United States culture is always changing, and one area that continues to progress in a generally positive direction is our commitment to make the built environment more than just accessible in the minimalist, code-prescribed sense. We have made great strides in making spaces easily accessible, pleasant and functional for the people who engage with them, regardless of their diversity in physical attributes and potential disabilities. However, there is still room for significant improvement. My thoughts on this subject are not highly technical, as structural engineers typically are tasked with designing within the envelope created by the architectural designers. That still leaves room for structural engineers to become more aware of universal design concepts, and to use our access in the design process towards positive outcomes.
One aspect of universal design that has impacted me personally is the concept of designing to allow aging-in-place. My parents moved frequently as my father’s career took them across the U.S. and the world. Having had a nomadic lifestyle, their highest priority in their waning years was to remain together in their own home, to the very end. About eight years before their passing, they decided to move from their two-story home ten minutes from mine to a ranch-style home about 35 minutes away. I was highly critical of their decision, as it made it more difficult to assist with the things that came up on a regular basis (like getting the TV, cable box and AV receiver re-coordinated). However, my mother was right (again), and transitioning to a ranch-style home was critical to being able to live out the remainder of their lives per their goals.
That being said, even in their newly constructed home, the challenges multiplied as their mobility waned. The master bathroom, although spacious, had a tiny water-closet that had no room whatsoever for a helper or a small wheelchair. The master bathroom shower was the most accessible space for bathing, but that three-inch step to enter the shower eventually became a hurdle nearly too high. Likewise, although the path from the kitchen and living room to the master bedroom was mostly a straight shot, the hallway narrowed as it approached the master bedroom in an architectural feature that created in-wall nooks. In a wheelchair, that nearly straight shot became an obstacle course for the last few feet.
Fortunately, the challenges that their last home presented were relatively minor and they were able to live out their last days together at home. However, relatively small changes to the design of their home would have made it much easier for them to move about as they lost mobility and needed assistance, increasing their quality of life. Most of us don’t live a life confronted with challenges related to disabilities. However, assisting with the care of my parents as their mobility declined was eye-opening in a very personal way.
As a culture, the degree to which we adopt the principles of universal design is a clear measure of how caring and sensitive we are to the needs of others. As we age, most of us will become more appreciative of a built environment that considers the needs of all.