Accessible Design Pioneer: Bruce Stevenson

When he was 12 years old, Bruce Stevenson’s life took on fuel that would be ignited many years later. His mother had recently passed away, his father was mobility impaired and used a wheelchair, and their home was not accessible. His dad struggled to get in and out of the bathtub and on and off the toilet. It was the 70s: the independent living movement was just taking shape and products enhancing independence were rare. With his mom gone, unless his dad could become more independent and take on the responsibility of raising the family, they would likely be split up to live among relatives or in foster homes. Bruce and his family pulled together and began to improvise.

Bruce’s first invention was a ceiling lift. When the family could not find anyone to install a lift in their bathroom to help his father more easily access the bathtub and toilet, Bruce designed and installed a lift of his own. First, he found a piece of “I”-beam steel in a scrap yard and bought a chain hoist, some screws, and a can of white paint from a hardware store. Next, he assembled the materials to create and install a lift system in their bathroom. It wasn’t exactly “pretty”, but it worked. In fact, it worked well! His invention greatly increased the chances that his dad and family would be able to stay together in their home. His dad was amazed and encouraged him to explore his knack for designing and installing adaptive equipment. For the next 30 years, however, his talent remained a hobby that benefited his family and neighbors instead of a career opportunity.

After high school Bruce served in the Air Force for 12 years. He learned about aircraft-related systems, including hydraulics, mechanics, and electrical systems. After leaving the service, his skills allowed him to land a job with Northwest Airlines, where he worked for another 12 years. While Bruce enjoyed the work, he knew it wasn’t his calling.

His passion was reignited in 1999 while on a mission trip with his church in Jamaica. The group was helping to put a roof on an orphanage hospital that served children with disabilities. As he looked around, he began to think about how a few simple modifications could make a huge difference for many of the patients. He realized that his experiences and skills were gifts that could help improve the lives of many individuals experiencing mobility challenges. POOF! The fuel was ignited and Ability Solutions was launched in December 2001.

Bruce understood that it wasn’t sufficient to just have a solution that worked. He wanted to offer “great” products and services meeting the many other various needs and desires of consumers. For example, as transportation can be difficult for individuals with disabilities, having a product showroom for prospective customers wasn’t enough. So, Bruce built a portable model of a stair lift system that could be transported to consumers’ homes. Other aspects of his design and construction that set him apart include the way his products blend into the surroundings. Almost invisible, they allow visitors to see the beauty of the architecture and the person instead of directing attention to a need for assistance, incorporating the principles of universal design.

According to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, “the intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

Bruce’s vision is that his company will become “a single point of contact for people with accessibility needs — the accessibility experts within our community”. With that goal in mind, he has built his company into a one-stop shop for universal design. Ability Solutions is a licensed residential building contractor as well as an authorized equipment installer. This allows them to provide numerous products and services geared toward making the interior and exterior of homes accessible and comfortable for everyone.

Their product and service offerings include overall design consulting, remodeling, construction and landscaping. Yes, landscaping! Often a home interior is the sole focus of accessibility. But, the exterior of a home, such as the entrance, patio, garden, and yard, can easily become attractive and accessible spaces as well. Ability Solutions recently demonstrated their skill by creating a beautiful cobblestone walkway leading to a patio surrounded by a garden and greenery for one homeowner’s formerly stepped entrance.

The company also offers a wide variety of products allowing movement between different levels of a home, such as, stair lifts, platform lifts, and elevators. Ceiling lifts and other personal lifts are available to assist movement onto a couch, into bed, into a bathtub, or onto a toilet. They also have extensive experience with roll-in showers. Bruce and his company have the creativity and the know-how to create solutions where traditional methods fail.

A true entrepreneur, Bruce is always looking for ways to help. In the future he hopes to expand the number of affordable, accessible homes in the Twin Cities by purchasing, remodeling and re-selling homes to individuals in the disability community. The first project home, in St. Louis Park, is in the process of being remodeled. Bruce’s goal is to complete six homes per year.

Other local organizations have been recognized for their universal design work, including Dave Regel Construction, Habitat for Humanity