Accessible Design, Past & Present

The concept of accessible or universal design is a relatively recent development in the world of design. Starting in the mid-20th century there was increasing awareness of the needs of disabled individuals, echoing the concurrent socio-political movements to give marginalized populations more agency in everyday life. Disabled individuals were increasingly retained at home by their families instead of being shipped off to institutions. In 1963, architect Selwyn Goldsmith published Designing for the Disabled, the culmination of extensive research on the needs of disabled persons in the built environment. Goldsmith himself was struck with polio as a young adult, which led him to be to an ardent advocate for universal design. He promoted a design philosophy that did not cater only to the disabled, but rather included the disabled along with everyone else. Designing for the Disabled quickly became a reference for designers and architects around the world, kick-starting the evolution of universal design towards what it is today.

Within the past 20 years, the concept of universal design has come to be defined by seven principles: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple/intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size/space for approach and use. The term “universal design” was in fact coined in 1997 by Ronald L. Mace, founder and former program director of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Photo Courtesy of Arab Symbol Dictionary for AAC


Interior designers, architects, and product designers are working harder than ever to create innovative solutions for future residential kitchens. With the large number of aging ‘Baby Boomers’ and returning war veterans, the need for innovation is greater than ever.

Product designers have been busy thinking of creative solutions that help increase the functionality of individuals with disabilities in their kitchens. New hardware that allows the shelves of upper cabinets to lower down to wheelchair height, as well as pull-out pot racks that eliminate the need to bend over and reach into the depths of lower cabinets. In addition, clever uses of space such as small Lazy Susans, mixer lifts, and end cabinet broom storage all help to make finding things much easier and quicker for those who may have impairments.

Photo Courtesy of Freedom Lift Systems

Interior designers aren’t resting on their laurels either- while trying to strike the delicate balance between functionality and aesthetics, they are also busy keeping up with the latest American Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for kitchens. Interior designers have been working with product designers to help integrate those new technologies into traditional kitchen spaces. The beauty of this partnership is that kitchens no longer look disjointed, instead they look and function like any other kitchen. Thanks to this hard work these kitchens are functional for the disabled user as well as anyone else who would want to use the space. In the past, if a kitchen was designed for a wheelchair-bound individual, someone who was not using a wheelchair would have a difficult time using the space- as they say, you can have your cake and eat it too. In addition, designers are adding useful features such as pull-out work stations perfect for those who are in a wheelchair (but integrated into cabinetry when not in use), as well as toe-kick lighting, which not only helps increase visibility, but also looks great.

Architects are feeling the pressure as well. Integrating these new technologies into spaces help make a better-rounded home, as well as help them to gain recognition for being considerate of all users. When designing a home, the architect never knows that homes future, and creating larger, more spacious kitchens allow for wheel chairs to not feel confined. Architects are also working with the ADA code, and in some cases even pushing this further to make a truly unconfined space. Even when designing homes without the knowledge of a handicapped owner, architects can pre-plan for these new technologies, building in wall supports for future additions, and extra circuitry for powered technologies.


Thomas, A (2008) Principles of Accessible Kitchen Design Course 30.10.08 DLF Available from:[Accessed 13th December 2013]

Goldsmith, S (1984) Designing for the Disabled 3rd Edition, RIBA Publications Ltd, UK

“Planning an Accessible Kitchen.” Planning an Accessible Kitchen. DLF, n.d. Web. 04 May 2015.

“Selwyn Goldsmith.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 04 May 2015.