Universal Design Summit promotes accessible living conditions for all

Monday, April 9, 2012 | 10:34 p.m. CDT; updated 11:29 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 10, 2012

COLUMBIA — The structure and design of a city's curbs and crosswalks are seldom noticed by those on the move. Yet these practical details can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

It is these small but powerful environmental details that Colleen Starkloff highlighted during the Universal Design Summit held Monday evening at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services — an event intended to promote the simplification of life for all citizens by creating living situations that are usable by as many people as possible.

For example, many curbs in Columbia are what Starkloff, co-founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute in St. Louis, calls "truncated domes."

The corner of the curb dips into a slope so that the curb is rounded into the street, as opposed to ending at an elevated angle like the corner of a square. At the base of these slopes are rectangular patches texturized by small bumps and often painted yellow.

Such seemingly tiny details provide vital "way-finding information," Starkloff said.

"If somebody who is blind is walking around and can feel the bumps in the truncated dome, and if they can feel that change in texture, then they know that they are at an intersection and are about to cross into a street," Starkloff said. "You can also change the texture of the crosswalk so that the person who is blind can follow the texture and safely reach the other side."

For the "everyday Joe," Starkloff said, these changes in design might just provide a more visually-interesting crosswalk. But for someone who requires the accommodations, "it's a means of orientation."

Although universal design can be applied to all aspects of living, Monday's event focused on affordable housing in Columbia.

A goal discussed at the summit is the requirement that public money be used to build universally designed affordable housing.

"If the city uses public funds, then affordable housing should benefit all citizens. You can't just build one or two complexes that are wheelchair accessible and think that you've done your job," Starkloff said. "Say for example that someone has a stroke and their house only has a full bathroom on the second floor. The family can either spend a lot of money on an elevator or leave that person upstairs indefinitely."

If that particular house were universally designed, however, a full bathroom would be readily available on the first floor, Starkloff said.

"The whole purpose of universal design is to make sure that these accommodations are already built in, so that if someone needs the changes, then they don't have to make the expensive modifications," Starkloff said.

Other accommodations might include bathrooms that provide at least a five-foot turning radius, curb-less bathtubs, handheld shower heads and lower light switches for wheelchair accessibility. 

Columbia resident Cheryl Price has been advocating for universal design in housing for years — even before a 30-year-old brain injury caused her to need the assistance of a power wheelchair 10 years ago. Price has been inconvenienced by the lack of wheelchair accessibility in her home. She recently broke her leg, ankle and some bones in her foot. Since then, she said, getting through the doors to her bathroom to take a shower has been "impossible."

"I'm interested in universal design for myself and for my friends," Price said. "A lot of them live in houses that are not accommodating, and their diseases are getting worse. They may not be able to live in their homes unless changes are made."

Joe Alder, her husband, chimed in.

"We are fortunate enough to live in the only house on the block with a step-less entry," he said.

Supporting someone in a nursing home costs five times more than what it would cost to support them in their own home, Alder said. A little planning by developers and architects to incorporate universal design could go a long way, he said.

"It is a cultural myth that it's expensive to convert living environments to universal design standards. If developers plan to build something from scratch with the standards in mind, then it would be no different than building something without them in mind," Alder said. "All it takes is a little bit of imagination, understanding and creativity on the part of the architects and designers."

Starkloff said universal design adds significant value without adding significant expenses.

Starkloff, though living without a disability, is familiar with the necessity of wheelchair-accessible homes.

Her late husband, Max, was involved in a car accident when he was 21. After four years of living with his mother, the physical and financial strain associated with his care grew overwhelming. His only option at the time was to move into a nursing home.

"To Max, a nursing home meant incarceration because society didn't have a better plan for people with disabilities," Starkloff said. "That was not our attitude."

She said universally designed homes are a vital stepping stone to regaining independence for individuals with disabilities. 

"Anybody can live in a universally designed home and making these minimal, practical changes will foster acceptance (of the community of people with disabilities)," Starkloff said.

Without universal design, people with disabilities are often forced to live apart from the rest of society, Starkloff said, adding that this separation can create fear and unnecessary isolation.

"It's frightening because people think that if someone can't walk, see, or hear, then they must live differently. That's just not true," she said. "There's no cure for most disabilities, so the best thing to do is to make sure that people with disabilities can live a full-quality life with dignity and self-respect in tact."

She said living with disabilities and dignity and self-respect in tact requires the ability to choose.

"Living with choice gives people a framework of options," Starkloff said. "If your home is not wheelchair accessible, then you cannot live there and you are given no choice but to live in a nursing home. Universal design is about creating choice."

The next step, Starkloff said, is to create awareness and mobilize change.

"Round up stakeholders, work on identifying funding sources," Starkloff said. "Universal design is not a standard or a code — it's an ideal, and it's happening all over the world. It's not just for the disabled and elderly, it's for everybody. Once you convince developers that universally designed homes will sell, then we're on the road."

Negar Rezvani, human rights specialist with the Columbia/Boone County Division of Human Services, said she hopes to start forming a coalition of Columbia residents interested in universal design.

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