I was fortunate to receive a grant to travel to the Scandinavian countries and study Universal Design, or Design for All, as they refer to it there. The definition of Universal Design is: The design of consumer goods, physical environment, buildings, technology and services to be usable by all people, regardless of age, size or ability.
I arrived at the airport in Oslo, Norway, and knew I was in the land of good design. There were comfortable reclining seats with padded head and foot rests for weary travelers, large visible glass elevators with fold-down seats, signage with international symbols understood by everyone regardless of reading or language ability and very light maneuverable baggage carts. All the accessible unisex bathrooms were very spacious, accommodating persons using wheelchairs, travelers with baggage, or parents with children.
Many cities in Norway are striving towards achieving Design for All, while maintaining the historic character of their old buildings. The historic fronts are left standing, while the interiors are totally renovated to create more functional and accessible spaces. Government provides funding to communities working on universal planning, collaborates with persons with disabilities and design professionals on this, and reinforces the integration of Universal Design in schools that educate design professionals.
Regarding housing, it has historically been the philosophy of the Scandinavian countries that government should provide for all, and that everyone should have their own comfortable home.
Residential facilities for persons with disabilities and older adults had many universal features, including: Individual apartments with accessible cooking facilities and private entries for increased independence; 40″ wide doorways; large windows allowing for fresh air and sunlight; spacious bathrooms without walls, partitions or steps, flexible grab bars, and adjustable-height fixtures for both standing and seated persons.
A particular residence for older adults with dementia used color and design exceptionally well. Several buildings were on one site, but each ‘house’ was constructed of a different color and material on the outside, giving the feeling of being in a ‘neighborhood.’ Each house was divided into several wings or ‘streets,’ and each street was identified by a different color which was repeated in the hallway and at doorways. On the wall at each individual apartment doorway, was the room number, resident’s name and photograph, and personal nature symbol, all most pleasantly reassuring the person that he or she was ‘home.’
Design in Scandinavia is integrated into the daily life of citizens. Some examples:
• Automatic sliding doors everywhere, from shopping markets to residential facilities, without buttons to operate or doors hazardously swinging towards you;
• Lever handles on all doors;
• Outdoor plazas at residential facilities as well as public places, offer something for everyone: Benches to rest on, sculpture to view or touch, sensory gardens to experience, and playgrounds to explore.
We can learn much from people in other parts of the world. Go visit!
Susan Lasoff is an Occupational Therapist & Accessibility Specialist.