044: Invisible Universal Design

Good Fit Poor Fit
Good Fit Poor Fit
044: Invisible Universal Design

Show Notes


Sarah: [00:00:00] You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:31] Welcome to another episode of Good Fit Poor Fit. Today’s episode was inspired by an idea that popped into my brain while washing dishes. And it actually didn’t have anything to do with dishes. Isn’t it funny how things like that happen? We once went to a conference and one of the presenters mentioned that when it is done well, universal design is invisible.

[00:00:51] The idea behind the statement is that the design works for many and isn’t automatically seen as something specialized for the disability community. So when things work, the design becomes invisible because it doesn’t get in our way. Things not universally designed have glaring barriers that quickly become apparent or visible because they don’t work well.

Rebecca: [00:01:12] That is so true. That’s actually one of my favorite things to tell people when they ask about universal design. That if implemented correctly, universal design just works for everyone. Something that’s truly made using the principles of universal design will be comfortable, intuitive, simple, and flexible for diverse users.

[00:01:32] So if that’s a success, you should be able to do what you need to do with that object or in that space with absolutely no trouble at all. 

Sarah: [00:01:40] Exactly. And along that same train of thought, we might not always think about different ways to use products or why things are designed the way they are since we typically do things the same way. That is until we experienced a change in function and have to do something different than our norm.

[00:01:57] Think about the zipper. If you have great finger function, pinching onto that flat little zipper pull and pulling it up and down is no big deal. But what if your fingers were paralyzed or you had arthritis? Doing this task just got 10 times harder. But what if that zipper pull had a loop on it where you could get your finger through that loop to pull the zipper?

[00:02:19] That’s a game changer and it’s something we see a lot on clothing these days. It benefits a lot of people, even little kids who are learning to zip things for the first time. 

Rebecca: [00:02:28] Yeah. That’s a good example of a taken for granted universal design. 

Sarah: [00:02:35] Yeah. So that got me thinking about other products and design elements that people see as commonplace, but that actually do provide universal accessibility.

[00:02:45]Things we may see or use every day that have elements that really do benefit a wide variety of people. So today I thought it may be interesting to discuss a few examples of design, technology, or products that we may see without even realizing the wide reaching benefits. This could also spur on some creativity in the way things are designed without glaring barriers.

Rebecca: [00:03:07] Yeah, I think we can learn a lot from these types of products and features that we’ve already become familiar with and they make our environments work better for everyone. So what’s the first thing that comes to mind for you here, Sarah? 

Sarah: [00:03:19] Well, my first example is steps. I know you probably are all like, well, of course not having steps, it’s universally accessible.

[00:03:26] That’s an easy one. But let me explain with another example. When we first started our consulting business in 2012, we created an ebook called Universal Design Simplified. And one of the ideas I talked about was that roads don’t have steps in them because cars can’t drive over steps. We all have come to expect that when we drive through town, we won’t encounter any steps in the road.

[00:03:49] The path tends to roll up and down hills. And bridges are made to make sure our cars don’t experience any barriers and create an unsafe situation. We’ve all come to accept this for grocery stores or big box stores that require carts as well. Wouldn’t it be odd if Target had a big step to jump over with your cart just to get your purchases out the door? Yet steps, curbs, and other sharp elevation changes still tend to pop up in lots of places.

[00:04:18] These can limit those who use mobility equipment, have difficulty with their balance, maybe trouble with their vision or people pushing stroller or luggage. It’s interesting that no steps is commonplace for rolling cars, but not so much for rolling people or things. 

Rebecca: [00:04:34] I had absolutely never thought of it like that until you said it, and there are all kinds of ways to deal with necessary changes of elevation like sloping streets or in the non vehicular equivalent ramps.

[00:04:48] And in the case of homes, of course, the most direct and cheap way to cross from one level to another is with steps. But in other spaces, they’re sometimes just use to create an arbitrary partition between an open kitchen and the living room, for example. And, those sorts of steps could be easily avoided in any design plan.

[00:05:06] So I certainly see what you’re saying. And if we think about the steps into showers too, with the right drainage, we can even eliminate them. 

Sarah: [00:05:14] Yeah, exactly. I know steps are definitely the norm and people expect to see them in front of homes but they definitely aren’t an accessible design element. And you can decorate a porch and make it Pinterest worthy without steps too.

[00:05:28] Another example is something that I just saw pop up in my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is a motion or proximity sensor at stoplights. Instead of having to push a button to tell the light that you want to cross the crosswalk, you can now wave your hand in front of it to activate it.

[00:05:46] Now I’m sure that this was a high consideration to install because of COVID and decreasing the things everyone touches. But I really think it has benefits for so many others as well. 

Rebecca: [00:05:58] Yeah. I definitely agree. This type of sensor works for the germ purposes and also for people who have decreased hand strength or those who can’t reach the button because of where it’s located, or if their hands are full. We actually see this kind of sensor technology a lot these days.

[00:06:14] Hand dryers, sinks, toilets, and public restrooms card readers with all the tapping features, keyless entry, using fobs or QR codes. It’s really all the same idea. What I like about it is that it taps into the universal design trait of tolerance for error. So you don’t have to wave by a precise location. As long as your motion is in the general area for the sensor to pick it up, you’ll trigger the action that you want.

[00:06:41] And this is part of why it works for so many people. 

Sarah: [00:06:44] It’s pretty smart technology like you shared. And it’s used in so many other applications. The tolerance for error is such a great point in this too. I know many people that struggle to get that key into a keyhole. And it may be because of their decreased dexterity, strength, or even difficulty with tremors and not having to struggle with those fine motor tasks gives them more independence and allows them to not have to be so accurate in making something work.

Rebecca: [00:07:12] Yeah, exactly. And talking about invisible universal design actually reminds me of a parking garage near my old apartment. The parking garage was in Center City, Philadelphia near a number of tourist destinations and also a really big hospital. So it was the kind of place where many people who are not familiar with the area would park.

[00:07:32] And in this garage, the floors were labeled with a color, a number, an image, and a Philly themed word. And I think there was also a quote too. When I say it like that, it sounds borderline aggressive with the labeling, but I would actually argue that it’s pretty universal. People who speak any language could remember the color or number corresponding to their spot.

[00:07:55] Children who can’t even read could remember where they parked based on a picture. People who are tourists in Philly could remember the Philly themed word or quote, and also learn a little something in the process. And this actually reminds me a lot of a sign system that one of our Good Fit, Poor Fit guests in Danise Levine told us about in a hotel that you recently worked on.

[00:08:14] And if you didn’t catch that episode, it’s a highly recommended one. We’ll link it in the show notes. 

Sarah: [00:08:21] As you were explaining this, I was thinking about this episode from Danise. So I am super excited that you mentioned that episode too. So we’ve discussed a few everyday UD applications in the community. But Rebecca, I bet there are a few within the home that people may not have considered.

Rebecca: [00:08:39] Yes, absolutely. One piece of invisible universal design might very well be hiding in many of your kitchen drawers, listeners. No, I don’t mean those old spatulas that you haven’t used in a decade, but haven’t gotten around to throwing out. What I mean are the uber popular, OXO kitchen utensils.

[00:08:59] You know, the ones you see in bed bath and beyond with the chunky black handles that still somehow manage to look sleek. Again, see the show notes for some images, if I’ve completely lost you. But anyway, this company actually calls the handles on their products, “good grip handles” because they’re soft, non-slip, and easy and hold onto.

[00:09:19] Interestingly enough, the founder designed these intentionally when his wife began to struggle to use a peeler due to arthritis. He saw that there was absolutely no reason for her kitchen utensils to hurt her hands. And you know what, he’s right. The mindset with which he approached this kitchen challenge is the exact mindset of a universal design thinker.

[00:09:40] He saw a barrier, the unwieldy peeler for his wife’s arthritic hands, and asked how could this work better? And his design is now rather ubiquitous with its soft wide handles and ridging to indicate where you should place your fingers. It really works great for a wide variety of people and also looks aesthetically pleasing.

Sarah: [00:09:59] I love, love, love the OXO products. In fact, we put many of these on our wedding registry about 12 years ago to speak to their durability. We still have most of them today. And they’re great. When a toddler wants to help stir with a big OXO spoon in the OXO bowl with rubber on the bottom. So the bowl doesn’t go sliding around the counter.

[00:10:21] So it’s really great for all ages and stages. Another idea to go off the OXO products with the grippy built-up handles. Another product comes to my mind. Think about sports equipment, bats, tennis rackets, golf clubs, bike handles, and more have rubber built-up handles to easily and comfortably, plus skillfully play a sport. Tools like hammers, pliers, and drills can have larger handles with rubber to accurately complete tasks too.

[00:10:50] We see thicker handles on coffee mugs and our water bottles. My daughter’s forks and spoons even have built up, grippy handles. Phone cases or even being made with rubber material, because we all have a tendency to have slippery fingers and drop our phones. I’m sure you could think of more, but you get the idea.

[00:11:08] This design of larger grippy handles are definitely in widespread use. 

Rebecca: [00:11:14] Yeah, all good points. I actually think those little knobs that people put on the back of their phones too help them grip it. And that’s a really good example of universal design because it can help anybody be able to grip their phone, even if they can’t hold it tightly, they can still wrap their fingers around that little grippy piece. And it serves another function of being a stand to prop your phone on when you’re laying it on the table. So I think there’s actually a lot in the way of gripping things and things of that nature, that work well for a lot of people and can be really flexible.

[00:11:47] Another invisible universal design product that I went bananas over a few months ago is the new Nike hands-free sneaker. My brother and one of my best friends sent this to me because they knew it would speak to me as a universal design advocate and an athlete. If you haven’t seen this, I’ll share a video in the show notes so you can watch how awesome these are.

[00:12:09] Essentially this sneaker can be slid on without requiring a person to bend down, deal with that pesky tongue or hold the heel in place, or even tie. As you’ll see in the video, a person needs only to step into the shoe with the front of their foot and plant their heel in order to secure it in place. To take off the shoe, the person can either use their other foot or any other tool to hold down the heel and pop it right back out.

[00:12:35] When this came out, people went wild. People were saying that Nike had completely redesigned the sneaker. And I honestly agree. This creative design will work for so many people. Let’s face it, no one really likes having to bend down and tie their shoes. And with these guys, we won’t have to. This will be great for on the go types who never ended up on tying their sneakers anyway, kids who can’t tie the laces, yet people who’ve had hip replacements and can’t bend down, or even those with arthritis, for whom putting on sneakers has become a chore. 

Sarah: [00:13:08] This is such a great example of universal design. I saw a similar product being marketed to pregnant women who are struggling to put on their shoes and couldn’t reach their feet and they could just easily slide their foot into the shoe and go on with their day. So a lot of benefit for a lot of people. 

[00:13:26] Before we wrap up, I also wanted to circle back to that zipper example. I shared earlier that really goes along with your shoe example too. Back in 2013 or 14, I saw where an OT named Nancy Peters helped promote and invent this magnetic zipper that allows people to zip up their jacket one handed. 

[00:13:46] The magnet clips right at the bottom of the jacket, where we all tend to struggle a little bit to get those two tiny pieces together. She has seen them useful for kids, those who struggle with arthritis or hand paralysis. But it’s even helpful for a teacher who has a class of 20 young kids trying to get out the door for recess. In the video I’ll link in the show notes they’ve even noted it’s universal use. 

[00:14:10] And when shown to people, they were like, wow, that thing is cool. They saw a market for people in sports or folks that just have one hand busy and maybe need to quickly zip up their jacket. When I did a search for MagZip , M A G Z I P, they are actually integrated into quite a few products these days, even Under Armour.

[00:14:31] Plus, anytime you get features like this to be marketed to the general public too the price of this will go down. I know many other big names have started to carry adaptive equipment online and in stores like Target and through Tommy Hilfiger. It’s really great to see and the function is super helpful for so many.

Rebecca: [00:14:50] I actually think this is a great place to wrap up this episode because it loops back to your initial comments, Sarah, about how universal design, when it’s invisible, can be used as a creative inspiration to think outside the box and think about how we can eliminate barriers in the world around us.

[00:15:07] Clearly, Nike’s thinking about it along with companies like Under Armour and Target. So I think it’s about time that we all do too. 

Sarah: [00:15:15] Definitely. I agree with that. So what’s something you use every day that can be considered universal? Let us know, and maybe we can chat about it on another episode. Thanks for tuning in!

[00:15:28] Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com. If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].

[00:15:58] Thanks for fitting us into your day!


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