Universal Design for Seniors and People with Disabilities

Affordable housing must be accessible for all people and intentionally create spaces for people with disabilities. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 23% of the 10.4 million people using federal rental assistance have a disability. A report from the National Disability Institute shows that the poverty rate is twice as high for adults with disabilities. Although there is high demand for affordable and accessible housing, fewer than 200,000 housing units in the U.S. are universally accessible and only a fraction of those units is affordable.

Incorporating universal design is one way to build housing for people with disabilities. Universal design creates housing that is usable, meaning it can be used by people with or without disabilities without the need for adaptation. Disabled architect Ronald Mace created the idea of “universal design” to make accessibility an essential part of architecture and to prioritize disability needs in design practices. The following principles are used to guide universal design, although some advocates include additional categories such as social integration and cultural appropriateness:

  1. Equitable Use - The design can be used by a wide range of body sizes and abilities.
  2. Personalization - The design is made for a wide range of individual preferences.
  3. Simple and Intuitive - Any user can understand how to operate and use the design. 
  4. Awareness - The design communicates necessary information to the user, regardless of their surroundings or the user’s sensory abilities. 
  5. Wellness - The design protects the user from any possible danger.
  6. Comfort - The design minimizes the amount of physical effort needed for use. 
  7. Sufficient Size and Space- The design accommodates different postures and mobility and provides enough space to use assistive devices or personal assistance. 

Universal design predicts the needs and wants of a diverse group of users. Although the design approach benefits all users, it can lessen the need for assistive technology devices or make them easier to install and use because it was created for users with disabilities. 

As described by the Whole Building Design Group, several laws establish minimum requirements for accessible built environment design and construction, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (See details in other parts of this Tenant Talk.)  Although federal policies prohibit discrimination and determine the number of affordable units required by federal programs, advocates continue to push for an expansion of these laws and housing resources that meet the needs of people with disabilities, both in the design of units and how housing connects with other community resources and services. 

The Center for American Progress identifies several federal policy changes that could increase the number of accessible units. One of the suggestions is that Section 504 increase the percent of new HUD-funded housing units that are accessible. Other suggestions include more HUD funding for affordable housing for people with disabilities, creating funding for housing modifications, having community-based accessible housing, and connecting housing to important services and resources. To encourage the construction of universally designed units, some localities have passed Universal Design ordinances, like the City of Fremont, CA, Universal Design Ordinance, which go further than the ADA in requiring that builders offer accessibility features to buyers as upgrades.

There are several examples of local projects that integrate accessibility and affordability for tenants. University Neighborhood Apartments in Berkeley, CA, was the nation’s first affordable housing building with universal design features. Because every apartment included universal design features, tenants with disabilities had access to the whole community. Washington Court in Iowa includes 36 affordable rental housing units, a health care provider, and a social service agency. Nine of those affordable units have additional features for residents with mobility and sensory disabilities. When researchers surveyed residents, roughly half the residents said they directly benefited from the universal design features. 

In “Universal Design and the Problem of ‘Post-Disability’ Ideology,” Aimi Hamraie, assistant professor of medicine, health, & society and American studies at Vanderbilt University, describes the down sides to universal design.  The report warns that when universal design advocates focus on accessibility for everyone, it can erase or marginalize the explicit needs of people with disabilities. Refencing another scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, Hamraie explains that design “must involve treating disability itself as a valuable way of being in the world, one that societies must work to accept and preserve rather than cure or rehabilitate.” Design is more than a checklist of features in a housing development. As policies are adapted and conversations around accessible architecture in affordable housing change, designers should center people with disabilities and build for their interests.