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Don't let disabilities or age rob you of a stylish home

Story Highlights

• Universal design helps homeowners live in their houses for longer periods of time
• CDC: More than 12,000 people died of injuries related to falls in the home in '02
• Design can make living spaces more livable for those with, without disabilities
By Ann Hoevel
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- At the Atlanta Home Show, a three-room installation showed off trendy new building supplies, like ceramic tile that mimics weathered wood, high-tech ovens and home security systems. But the installation, called "Safe Home for Life," wasn't trying to sell new plumbing or expensive cabinets.

Instead, the Atlanta Home Show teamed up with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Universal Design Alliance to educate the public about universal design and prevent falls in the home.

The CDC estimated that in 2002, more than 12,800 senior citizens died from falling in their home and 1.6 million elderly adults needed emergency room treatment because of falls. Gail Hayes, senior press officer for the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said the exhibit was not only helpful for older adults, but also for people with disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

"Because most falls are preventable," Hayes said, "our aim ... is to help people live independently."

'Universal design is just good design'

Convenience is a main principle of the universal design approach, which started in the early 1990s.

The objective of universal design is to accommodate as many people as possible, including the elderly, the wheelchair-bound, people with cognitive and mobility issues, as well as average adults and children.

"Universal design is just good design," said Universal Design Alliance CFO Sandra McGowan. "People do mistake that it's for elderly people, and it's not. It certainly has to do with accessibility, but it's much more than that. The designs -- until you really need them -- just make things more convenient," she said.

Features in the three universally designed rooms kept accidental falls in mind.

"We tried to include things that were specifically for falls and injuries. All the floors were non-slip flooring," she said, with a notable absence of area rugs, which are trip hazards.

The bathroom, especially, used a generous amount of grab bars, which McGowan said are convenient for residents of all ages. "If they don't look institutional, then they don't feel like they're just for elderly people," McGowan said.

Commercial designers have been using universal design since the Americans with Disabilities Actexternal link outlined standards for accessible design. Homebuilders and the general public are beginning to ask for elements of universal design in new construction, such as wider hallways. "You can take almost any kind of floor plan and tweak it a little bit to make it universally designed," McGowan said.

Ideas from the Atlanta Home Show

Pam Sanchez, of Pam Sanchez Designs in Atlanta, Georgia, designed the "Safe Home for Life" kitchen. Some of the universal design elements she incorporated were different levels of countertops, elevated appliances, movable work surfaces and shelves that slide out of cabinets.

Sanchez used three different countertop heights in the kitchen, each with multiple purposes. The lower countertops could easily function as an eating area or could serve as a work space for children or people using wheelchairs. Mid-level countertops allowed appliances such as ovens and dishwashers to be mounted at a more comfortable height. The tallest surface is more ergonomical than average-height countertops, allowing people to prepare food without having to bend over the work space.

Candice McNair, of Bright Ideas Interior Design Inc. from Marietta, Georgia, designed the master bedroom and closet installation. It incorporated an adjustable queen-size bed, a hospital bed, comforting colors and many details to make care-giving and living with disabilities easier and stylish.

"This is really the setup I have at home. My husband's in a hospital bed, and I sleep in the big bed," said McNair, whose husband has Parkinson's disease. Her installation featured a remote-controlled harness and sling to help get a disabled person out of a hospital-style bed, as well as a "cozy chair" that tilts and adjusts easily, and moves around on wheels.

"You need mobility, for the caregiver to handle someone, and that's what I like about this. The lift system is really essential, if you can't pick somebody up," she said.

Other features included large pulls on lamps, C-handle drawer pulls that are easy on arthritic hands, wide spaces in the bedroom and the closet that accommodate wheelchairs, multi-leveled hanging bars and pull-out drawer space in the closet, and threshold-free transitions from room to room.

The bathroom installation featured a "wet room" -- a growing trend in bathroom design -- that incorporates an open floor plan. It featured a toilet area and large walk-in shower with no curbs or thresholds that could create trip hazards.

Grab bars and specialty shower fixtures in chrome had a sculpted quality that looked more decorative than industrial. His and hers vanities incorporated low storage and allowed enough space for a person using a wheelchair or a walker to easily use the sinks and access toiletry storage.


Candice McNair shows off the soft, colorful linens on the bed in her universally designed bedroom.

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