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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Dill

What's the Difference?

American Disabilities Act (ADA): Standards for accessible design, universal design (UD), inclusive design (ID), and aging in place (AIP). Is your head spinning yet? If you were remodeling your home or building a new home, would you understand these terms when speaking with designers? How would you describe what you need to designers, architects, contractors?


There is widespread confusion on the various design terms used above partially due to the language barrier of each term presents and whether all parties understand the meanings. While our Resources tab will provide you the definition, facts, and references on each, let’s break them down to hopefully clear up the cloudy misunderstandings:

ADA Accessibility:

This one is more common as you may hear it being referenced “ADA compliant,” “ADA accessible” or “ADA designs.” It’s commonly known as a design for people with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs. In fact, we hear “wheelchair accessible” often. “Accessibility” or “accessible” doesn’t always refer to those with other disabilities, which is why it’s not streamlined because many people lack an understanding of ADA designs. ADA Accessibility or Compliant generally refers to making modifications to public accommodations and commercial facilities as well as state and local government facilities. There is a reference document to refer to for coding and how to make sure areas are “ADA compliant” or meet the minimum requirements (2010 Standards for Accessible Design).

Although, ADA Accessible Designs is a more common term of all the design terms, there is still lack of full understanding. For instance, imagine using a power wheelchair for mobility or to get around at home and in the public. One thing most about which most people may not be aware, is that power wheelchairs require more maneuver space than the manual wheelchairs. Thresholds are also more challenging for power wheelchairs to wheel over the hump. While a place may have a zero entrance (meaning, no steps to enter the building), the threshold in the doorway is like staring at a mountain for a wheelchair user. This actually happened to a friend and even though she called ahead to make sure a restaurant was ADA compliant or wheelchair accessible, what she didn’t know was the roadblock to enter the restaurant…that threshold. This restaurant lost an entire family as customers that night.

Common ADA compliant features include: ramps, curbs, power assist doors, grab bars, maneuver space, height of railings, height and reach ability of sinks, etc. The 2010 Standards for Accessible Design document includes what is needed for ADA compliancy. Keep in mind, these are standard regulations and are minimum requirements, not necessarily enforced and not all features are addressed although it is noted that all new construction among state and government facilities must comply with the Standards after March 2012. Public accommodations often lack full compliance. One example being, there may be a ramp to access a public building or an outdoor shopping center may be all one level, but there is not an automatic door. Next time when you’re out and about at public accommodations, make note of how you got into the building or if there are any missing pieces of the puzzle for someone who has a disability. One may not always feel they have a disability until it’s highlighted when they face an environmental barrier.

Universal Design (UD):

Although UD has been around since the 1980s, recognizing that designs should include users of all abilities without the use of adaptations, the term “universal” has various representations much like the term “accessible” therefore, making the terms a little cloudy when it comes to environmental or home designs. Universal Design Principles and even Goals of Universal Design were established to use as guidelines when developing or designing products, buildings, homes. This design approach is more proactive, thinking ahead so that adaptations or modifications will not be as necessary. There are currently no recommendations or guidelines for the public like the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design publication. However, these principles are guidelines provided for the public and are often used in the non-profit documents that address any new construction. For instance, St. Louis City has a checklist of universal design requirements available to the public to integrate in all new construction.

Common UD encompasses a wide range of features and includes: curbless (or walk-in) showers that can be accessed by all users with various equipment, at least one zero-entrance into a building or home (no stairs with low thresholds), lever door handles used by all even those with poor hand dexterity, a removable shower head on a slide bar that can be used by children to adjust as they grow or for adults to use while sitting, use of signage that can be understood or read by all even those who have difficulty reading or comprehending (also called “wayfinding”), and more. As you can see, this approach to design allows people to enjoy their spaces now and in the future. Universal design is also integrated in designing products and assistive technology and lessens the effort required to use these products. These design features are ongoing in developments and ideas and applied almost in any product, space, and technology and perhaps, why it’s overwhelming to lay people and professionals who lack full understanding.

Inclusive Design (ID):

This design approach is often used interchangeably with universal designs and more commonly used in Europe. The Inclusive Design Centre in Ontario further defines their framework as having 3 dimensions of inclusive design. You can find additional resources and details and learn more about their Designing Inclusive Cities Project. New York City has released guidelines focused on making the city inclusive for all. The City acknowledges the need to ensure all programs and services are inclusive and accessible to everyone through their annual AccessibleNYC report. The report also lists what they have achieved each year through their programs and policy and information about their initiatives and plans.

Aging in Place:

This term is becoming very common and refers to those who want to stay in their homes as they age. You may have heard about designers (including architects and some contractors) who are CAPS certified (Certified Aging in Place Specialist). They assist in designs focused on those aging in place to improve safety and independence. Occupational therapists may or may not have this certification in addition to their license because they are already trained and educated on populations across the lifespan. The AARP is a great site for additional information and resources on aging in place. In fact, they have published HomeFit Guidelines to assist with designs and products focused on principles to make products and spaces adaptable, safe, and easy to use, all of which are very similar to universal design principles.

In summary, if you’re hearing or reading about any of these terms for the very first time, I encourage you to dive in and learn more about each design approach (see the Resources tab for additional information on each). In addition, these terms may expand your search for specific services in your area. Keep in mind, when designing a home, it can be customized to your needs and an occupational therapist is qualified to assist with your projects to promote independence, safety, and function within your environment. Integrating Inclusive or Universal Designs can not only improve the value of your home but will improve the quality of your life and even make your home more visitable. Contact Blue Day 2 Designs if you need any guidance on future projects and see if we are a good fit for you and your team.

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