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What is accessible design?

Sara Story, EdD, OTD, OTR/L, BCG, CAPS

November 4, 2021



What is accessible design?


Accessible design is an approach to make operation, access, or manipulation within a home easier for all. The individual's need determines its features. What does the individual truly need? The typical approach is fixed design or a fixed solution, or as many refer to as permanent. Often, the term accessible design may be viewed with a different connotation than what we mean when talking to the client, so there may be a discrepancy. I have experienced this with some clients who look at the word "accessible" through a medical lens or negatively. I think that education and advocacy are crucial to helping individuals understand the difference.

As OTs, we want to educate that accessible can take on one or a blend of three angles: adaptable design, transgenerational design, and universal design. Let me give you an example. When looking at a pull-down sprayer faucet or an adjustable stovetop, these are considered accessible designs that demonstrate adaptable and universal design principles. Who doesn't love a pull-down sprayer faucet? I think many times people think the word accessible is very medical, instead of something they can purchase and install.

Adaptable design is an accessible design feature used for an individual with a specific disability or deficit in mind. It is not saying they have to use it, but that is the focus and what the person could benefit from in their environment.

A transgenerational approach is a way to see design principles from an aging in place (AIP) viewpoint, like flush shower entrances or a shower with built-in seating. Kids and adults of all ages and abilities could benefit from a flush transition into the shower and a built-in seat. The other thing is bathing and showering across the lifespan. Grab bars, for example, can be beneficial for kids to aging adults.

Lastly, universal design is the last subset of the accessible design umbrella. Deardorff and Birdsong defined universal design in 2003 as the design of products and environments that can be used and experienced by people of all ages and abilities to the greatest extent possible without adaptation. A universal design considers every age, every ability, every function, and every use. It is truly the epitome of inclusive design.


Deardorff, C. J., & Birdsong, C. (2003). Universal design: Clarifying a common vocabulary. Housing and Society, 30(2), 119-138

sara story

Sara Story, EdD, OTD, OTR/L, BCG, CAPS

Sara Story, EdD(c), OTD, OTR/L, BCG, CAPS is an occupational therapist and associate professor in the Auerbach School of Occupational Therapy at Spalding University. She is board-certified in gerontology through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Her areas of practice include gerontology and mental health with a research interest in aging in place, community mobility, and mental health services. Sara has published and delivered presentations at the regional, state, and national levels supporting her research and scholarship interests.

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