Universal Design
From: C2pattee (C2patteeaol.com)
Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 05:22:46 -0600 (MDT)
i thought this article might interest cohousers who have a member in a 
wheelchair, as we do, or who are just getting a little older and creakier, as 
i am.

christine pattee, greater hartford cohousing group - where we are actively 
searching for land within a 30 minute drive of hartford.

By Robin Stansbury
The Hartford Courant 

October 18, 2000 

Mary Jo Peterson was designing upscale kitchens and baths for the wealthy and 
famous in Fairfield County when just one customer changed the focus of her 

It was a doctor who asked Peterson to help modify his home for a family 
member in a wheelchair. 

She researched and found that there was little help available in the design 
community in incorporating the needs of the disabled with those of the rest 
of a family. 

That case planted a seed that soon blossomed into Peterson's new career. 

"I was looking for a change," said Peterson, 50, who at nearly the same time 
lost her husband to cancer. "I was doing a lot of soul searching, asking, 
`What am I doing that makes a difference in this world?' This seemed like a 
good possibility to do some good." 

Peterson left her job as a designer with a West Hartford-based firm, and 
almost 10 years ago started her own company, using a concept few had ever 
heard of - universal design. 

Peterson defines the practice as creating products and spaces in a home that 
work for most people, most of the time, regardless of age, size and ability. 

In real terms, it means building a no-stair entryway with wider doors that 
can accommodate a person in a wheelchair, but is equally convenient for an 
elderly person using a walker, or a mother balancing children in one hand and 
a bag of groceries in another. 

It means installing kitchen countertops at various heights - some at the 
standard 36 inches, but some only 24 inches high - to accommodate cooks who 
are standing, as well as those who may be sitting. 

It means using a wall-mounted toilet in a bathroom that is accessible to a 
disabled person, but is equally comfortable for any user, and a whole lot 
easier to clean. 

"Universal design is just good design. If it is done right, it is beautiful 
and it makes a space personalized," said Peterson, president of Mary Jo 
Peterson Inc., Design Consultants in Brookfield. 

"People may think a safety bar would scream out, `This is a handicapped 
bathroom.' But if it looks like a wave, and it fits in with the design of the 
rest of the bathroom, then it looks beautiful and it does what it's supposed 
to do without standing out." 

Peterson says she was one of the first kitchen and bath designers nationwide 
to become a specialist in universal design and is still among only a handful 
of professionals consistently using the concept. 

She is a sought-after speaker who has written several books on universal 
design, and she travels the nation to educate builders and other designers 
about incorporating the concept into every home design. Her clients come from 
across the country. 

"Five years ago, if I was at a dinner party and said, `I design kitchens and 
baths with a focus on universal design,' no one would have said anything 
because they didn't know what it was," said Peterson, who lives in 
Brookfield. "Today, many more people are coming to me because they understand 
what I do." 

Peterson attributes the growing focus on universal design to the passage 10 
years ago of the American with Disabilities Act. The federal law prohibits 
discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education and 

"I like to say the Americans with Disabilities Act was like hitting the world 
in the head with a baseball bat," Peterson said. "Although it has very little 
to do with privately owned residential space, it made us sit up and take 
notice and really pay attention to people with disabilities." 

An aging baby-boom population has also helped popularize universal design. 
Features such as single-lever faucets, raised dishwashers, and waste and 
recycling containers on pull-out drawers in lower cabinets are gentler on the 
body. Peterson said she is working with a builder in Denver who plans to 
incorporate universal design into all of his housing projects for people 55 
and older. 

Universal design does not cost any more than traditional custom-designed 
kitchens and baths. But it is more costly to modify an existing home and make 
it more accessible to a variety of users, she said. 

But Peterson encourages clients to at least start small. 

"How can you have a disabled friend come and visit you if you can't get them 
up the front steps of your house?" Peterson said. "So start small. Almost any 
home can easily be designed with a level entry. Universal design is not 
thinking about how we have always done things, but it's thinking instead, 
`What do we wish this space could do?'" 

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