What is Universal Design? Why do we need it?

What is Universal Design? Why do we need it?

Universal design will accommodate everyone of any age or ability. True universal design goes beyond mere accessibility. It demonstrates an underlying commitment to including as wide a range of users as possible.

The Older Women’s Network housing committee is calling for a change to federal and provincial building codes to require that all new multi-unit buildings be universal design.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act does not include housing. It regulates accessibility of public buildings and businesses.

We need innovative housing which is affordable, barrier-free, multi-generational and promotes the building of community.

Disabilities play no favourites. Anyone of any age can have been born with a disability or can be struck by illness or accident which creates a temporary or lasting injury. We have all heard of the cyclist hit by a truck and the stroke patient who cannot return home to an inaccessible apartment. Nobody should be made homeless due to accident or illness.

If need arises, home-care services can be arranged, provided the home is barrier-free.

While OWN focusses on advocacy and public education, a sister organization, Unitarian Commons, is aiming to build the first building to tackle the twin socio-health problems of isolation and barriers to mobility in homes.

Due to the difficulty in finding funding for rental housing, they are starting with a non-profit, affordable condo building.

Not wanting to end up in a seniors’ ghetto, the Unitarian Commons team decided to build multi-generational co-housing. It is their hope that this pilot project will be replicated by others across Canada.

Despite a search, no comparable building was found in Toronto. Despite the fact that the Ontario Building Code requires that 15% of units be accessible, informal inquiries at new condominium sales offices about their accessible units were met with lack of information on the part of uninformed sales agents.

Over 4.4 million Canadians (one out of every seven) live with some form of disability. That’s a substantial group of possible buyers who are generally overlooked by builders.

The increasing concern about healthcare costs, chronic disease and disabilities, and an aging population creates a corresponding demand for affordable barrier-free housing.

There is a misperception that universal design costs a great deal more than conventional design. However, in fact, the cost of universal design in housing is only about 1% more, provided it is planned from the initial design stage.

Contrary to another common misperception, barrier-free homes are actually spacious and elegant, due to their thoughtful design.

Most important of all, barrier-free housing is a human right. Age-ism and able-ism are the last frontiers of discrimination. A Charter challenge is currently underway in an effort to end discrimination in housing design.

Over 200 people have responded to the brief survey which is available on the websites of both OWN and Unitarian Commons. By answering the survey, you can help us demonstrate to government and builders that people need and want universal design in housing. You can do this online at https://unitariancommons.ca/survey/ or by email or snail mail at

You can also help by letting your elected representatives know about this need, and by dropping into sales offices to ask about barrier-free design in new condos.

The Older Women’s Network Housing Committee gave a presentation on June 20 at the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Committee.  Mayor John Tory sat in on the presentation.  OWN member Thea Kurdi, an Architectural Accessibility and Universal Design Specialist, did a wonderful job of making this controversial topic clear.    You can see the presentation here:  http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2016/ah/bgrd/backgroundfile-94585.pdf