Accessibility And Our Three Key Design Filters

More people are realizing the importance of home accessibility. If you haven’t thought about it yet, you should. Perhaps you’re able bodied now, but have you ever broken a bone or thrown out your back? While some people have chronic conditions and life-long disabilities, a staggering number of us will be temporarily disabled at some point in our lives. In addition to your own well-being, having a home that is designed and decorated through an accessibility filter also makes it easy to welcome guests who may have disabilities and expands your potential buyers when you resell your home. If you are realizing you should adjust your space, we have some great pointers for you.

Accessibility is complex with lots of considerations, some of which may be at odds with one another. This is why we came up with three key design filters that we apply to every design decision, from the highest levels down to the smallest details in our work. With these guidelines, you can be more mindful of the choices you make within your home. They are Balance, Clarity and Simplicity. 

Balance is about preventing falls, at all costs, because nothing poses more risk to people with disabilities and older adults than falling. Preventing falls may sound like a single topic, but falls are the negative result of a multitude of circumstances made worse by poorly thought-out spaces. First, you should eliminate trip hazards like thick throw rugs. Next, look for furniture that lets you sit higher and chairs that have sturdy armrests to help you sit and stand. Look for furniture with set-back legs to avoid trip hazards when possible. Pottery Barn launched a collection of items last summer that address a lot of these issues. Also, look to provide safe touch points around your home to help you with safe mobility. For example, grab bars can now be bought in coordinating styles to match your bath fixtures. We designed beautiful and better functioning bath safety items like shower chairs and commodes for CVS Health. We also recommend having multiple mobility devices like canes, walkers or rollators throughout your home to ensure you always have safe movement. Endeavor to have zero step transitions wherever possible to avoid tripping hazards and allow wheelchair mobility if needed. Verify or install slip resistant flooring.  Consider replacing high polish flooring, particularly if in areas prone to wetness. Check the stability of stair handrails.  Confirm they are at proper heights with proper extensions. To avoid injuries in the home, make “balance” your mantra.

Clarity is about visual acuity, as well as optimizing acoustics. As we age, our perception of color and contrast shifts, and we require much more light to see than we did in our twenties. This requires us to think about how we light our spaces in ways that are thorough yet adjustable. Contrast is another under-discussed essential topic when it comes to accessibility. While one may love the look of a chic all-white couch on an all-white rug in front of an all-white wall, that can easily become a hazard for anyone with any visual impairment (like Justin Bieber is now facing), because everything blends together and one simply cannot make out where one thing ends and another begins. When picking paint colors and furniture, we recommend thinking about a palette that you love, but that also has high contrast, so that you can ensure that items stand out from their surroundings. If you are tiling a shower, try using different colors on the back wall from the side walls, from the floor, so you can clearly make out your space when you are showering. Consider the projection of objects from the walls such as shelving or light sconces.  Confirm that they are located at proper heights.  Avoid unnecessary wall projections at high traffic areas. Hearing impairments (like Justin Bieber is now facing) can be exacerbated when you are surrounded by hard surfaces that bounce sound all over and significantly reduce speech intelligibility. Fill your space with upholstered items, plants and other items that absorb sound waves. This will also improve the experience at every get together within your home.

Simplicity is just that. Declutter your space. Make sure you have wide, clear paths for moving through your space. If you are putting in new doors, see if you can fit wider ones. Use levers instead of round doorknobs. Consider casement windows with crank levers in easy to reach locations. When you are buying new appliances and other products, get ones that are simple and straightforward so anyone can figure out how to use them. We find this last one sounds simple (pardon the pun) but is one of the hardest. While technology lets us pack features into products, this often makes them more confusing. The simple solutions are often the most elegant, the creation of spaces that are inherently accessible as opposed to shouting accessibility.  It is best to avoid unnecessary distraction and visual “clutter”.  When undergoing a construction project, consider the flexibility to provide simple accessibility adaptations in the future.  For example, add blocking within walls to support a future handrail, especially in toilet and shower areas. This will reduce future construction time which is particularly inconvenient for those with a disability who may be more bound to their homes. Embrace making your space clean and simple now so it works for you in the long run.

Since Michael Graves became paralyzed in 2003, we really leaned into what “Design For All” means focusing on financial accessibility as well as physical inclusivity - we call it Delight for All. We have designed homes for wounded warriors, hospitals, hospital furniture and home healthcare accessories. Focusing on our three filters (Balance, Clarity and Simplicity) you design for the body, mind and spirit of the user delivering improved experiences for all and helping to destigmatize disability and aging. Challenge yourself to think broadly about the potential circumstances you could experience and find the intersections. Those are the places where you can create better solutions that truly provide Delight for All.

Rob Van Varick, Chief Design Officer, Michael Graves Design 
Robert Blaser, Principal, Design Practice Leader, Michael Graves Architecture 

Delight For All with Michael Graves Design