Bjorklund on Accessibility, Universal Design


It’s official: May is Older Americans’ Month. Although Kevin Bjorklund is not officially an Older American, he faces the same accessibility challenges that many older people do, as described by Joel Koyama in a Star Tribune article. (From his own point of view, Bjorklund himself has also written an article for Access Press, called “Living in Style.”)

Because of an early childhood accident, Kevin Bjorklund lost the use of his legs and has spent his life in a wheelchair. Most aids designed to help the disabled are aesthetically unpleasing, and as a creative person, he was bothered by that. Especially when a person works at home and spends most of his waking hours in the same environment, the way things look can make a big difference to morale. And that’s not even starting to mention the way things work.

He was amazed to visit a new, state-of-the-art “accessible” house and find a set of stairs at the entrance. Inside this showplace, an elevator was the only concession that had been made to the needs of a wheelchair-bound person. Where were the self-storing doors? Where was the curbless shower stall? Why was the oven not lowered to a decent height? Where were the front-loading washer and dryer?

Observers have reported such clueless sights as a kitchen sink built so that a wheelchair could slide under it — until the garbage disposal apparatus was installed to block the way, making the whole “accessibility” concept an unfunny joke.

Some builders know how uncomfortable it makes people to discuss decreasing abilities, even when called by the name of “aging in place.” They install stealth “aging in place” features but don’t tout these preparations unless asked — for instance, bathroom walls reinforced in anticipation of the need for grab bars.

Unfortunately, a lot of helpful features add significantly to the cost of a house up front, but the payoff comes much later when people face the choice between staying in their own longtime residence or having to move into some kind of assisted living facility.

Technically, accessible design refers to a definite set of parameters to be observed, which make a place accessible to people with disabilities. Universal design, on the other hand, is limited only by the imaginations of the designers and architects and of course the people who will be living in a house. It’s an open-ended concept.

In an echo of one of the precepts of Werner Erhard who said, “The world doesn’t work unless it works for everyone,” Koyama quotes his subject on the topic of the difference:

“Universal design is about usability, not disability,” said Bjorklund, who works from his home as a product consultant for a technology company. “It’s for creating environments that work for everyone.”

The house in Lakeville, Minnesota, which Bjorklund eventually created for himself incorporated 70 features that come under the heading of “universal design,” says Koyama.

Some are as simple as lever-style door handles (instead of knobs) and easy-to-reach electrical outlets placed mid-level on walls. Others are more structural, such as wider doorways, no-rise thresholds and varied countertop heights and depths. Bjorklund’s four-bedroom rambler even has several no-step decks that one can easily roll or step upon.

Kitchens and bathrooms are particularly vulnerable to design flaws with regard to accessibility. A more complete list of the features Bjorklund installed includes mention of slide-out drawers in lower kitchen cabinets where dishes can be stored, and a vanity table with a recessed area underneath.

(The photo on this page, incidentally, is not of the Bjorklund house. It’s an art photo.)

SOURCE: ” Homes without barriers” 03/27/08
photo courtesy of Brett L. , used under this Creative Commons license

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