Universal Design Game-Changer: Hands-Full Door Knobs and Lever Handles

Door knobs have typically been frowned upon for universal design, and understandably so, as they require users to grip and rotate a knob to unlatch a door. Lever handles are much more user-friendly and intuitive, and can be operated without a grip, with a closed fist, with an elbow, etc.

Brinks Home Security has changed the game with their new “Hands-Full” Door Knobs. Instead of writing an analysis about the product, I’ll just let the videos do the talking…

I have a cervical spinal cord injury with a diagnosis of quadriplegia, and the Hands-Full Door Knob was surprisingly easier for me to use than the Hands-Full Lever Handle. Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t get me wrong, both are fantastic, but the lever handle required just a little bit more leverage and force to pull open. This is worth mentioning because typical lever handles have always been easier to use than door knobs (for me and everyone else). Note how Sarah opens the knob at the 0:40 mark in the video below; that’s how I do it with decreased hand function.

hands-full door knobMy mind has officially been blown.

Oh, and if you didn’t click the link above to the website for this product, go check this out: bhsppr.com. Note that all of the language used in their copywriting is about how easy the door knob is to use. It’s not about making life more accessible for people with functional limitations, though that’s obviously a benefit of such a product. Universal design has mass-market appeal, and these guys have nailed it.

Pinteresting: Wheelchair Barbie discontinued because she didn’t fit in her dream home.

Every time I get on Pinterest my husband says – “Anything Pinteresting?” – so we decided to do something new. Every so often I’ll link a new blog post to the “Pintersting” board on my Pinterest account about something interesting found on Pinterest, or something interesting found in real life. This is all in hopes to show people that universally designed places and products are essential, beautiful & used by most anyone to make their lives easier, no matter their ability.

I was browsing around on Pinterest the other day and found something interesting… a Barbie in a wheelchair! However, the caption underneath was quite telling of reality. Barbie didn’t fit into her Dream House, so instead of redesigning the home, they took her off the market.

I searched around the internet for other sources and AMS Vans Blog wrote a post on this topic in 2011. You can read the article here and this is my source for information and quotes.

“Share A Smile Becky” was made in 1997 and went through a few modifications:

The original Becky could not fit through the Barbie Dream House front door, and her hair was also so long that it would get caught in the wheelchairs wheels. Attempting to make the doll as real-life as possible, Mattel did some adjustments to Becky making her wheelchair smaller and her hair shorter. The new and improved Barbie was wanted in high demand and flew off the shelves in less than two weeks.

Even after the modifications a 17 year old girl with cerebral palsy still said Becky couldn’t get into the dream home elevator. Mattel soon discontinued Becky as well as another para-olympic racing version of Becky.

share a smile becky barbie

Photo Credit WAVY.com

So what does this say about how we view accessibility in our homes and communities? Granted this was back in the late 1990s, but a lot of attitudes are still the same.

Many believe that the company discontinued the wheelchair Barbie doll because it would be much easier to take her off the shelves than redesign the whole Barbie community such as housing, cars, and various accessories. A spokesperson stated the company, “might recreate another wheelchair-using doll in the future, but has no definite plans to do so.”

A few thoughts and how this relates to reality:

  1. Becky couldn’t go “visit” her friend Barbie because she couldn’t get into Barbie’s home. 
  2. Becky had a hard time moving around in her home. As a young independent woman, it’s hard to not get frustrated when you can’t get around to do your daily activities.
  3. Becky tried to adapt to her environment and even got a new wheelchair, cut her hair, and had a few home modifications done (i.e. wider doorways in a different dream home) and it still wasn’t sufficient.
  4. So what did they do? The designers decided it wasn’t worth the effort and gave up.

Sounds like the person making changes to Becky’s environment needed to partner with an OT to look at her activities and how she does things. If the designers of the Dream Home knew what was important to Becky to perform her daily tasks, they could have make changes to help her move around the home easier, use her car, and the other products that all other Barbies and Kens use.

This is EXACTLY what needs to happen in the design of our places, products, and programs today in homes and communities. We need to look at how the design effects the function in our environments and make changes that can work for the Barbies and Beckys out there.

**Side note and confession: When I was a little girl and played with my Barbies, I would wrap wet tissues on my Barbie’s leg and let it dry to look like a cast. The dollhouse my grandfather made me only had steps to get to multiple levels. Barbie got creative and would tie a ribbon around her waist and hoist herself up the side of the house to reach the top floor. I guess this was my solution as a kid in elementary school… creative home modifications by an OT in the making ;)

Reflections on Universal Design Summit 5 a week later.

UD Summit 5 Conference BrochureWe’ve had a little time to sit and reflect on our experience at Universal Design Summit 5. We’re excited to apply the knowledge we’ve learned into our business to help our clients and partner with other service providers. Not only did we meet some great people who are all trying to implement universal design into homes and their communities, but we learned a lot of great ways to make that happen.

So here are a few things we learned on our last day at the conference:

1. Kitchen and bath design trends are evolving per Mary Jo Peterson.

  • Store things traditionally held in upper cabinets in easy to reach bottom shelving/drawers
  • Integrate outdoor and indoor spaces
  • Drawers versus cabinets
  • Use of LED lighting in drawers, on sink faucets to determine hot and cold water temperatures, lighting the inside of drawers, lights in floors to determine pathway, and a lighted toilet for those night time bathroom trips
  • Induction stove for cooking
  • Raised dishwashers
  • Carts in the kitchen (with wheels on 2 legs)
  • Showers without steps to get in

2. Deb Young and Esther Greenhouse presented on meeting multigenerational needs through technology. Their big message was that we can all use these technology features for safety and convenience without the stigma that the system is “just for old people.”

  • Check out the thermostat Nest and the home automation system Iris from Lowes. They both have different features and interfaces but provide options for controlling the temperature and/or safety of your home, plus the ability to change the settings from your smart phones!
  • The 5 Star Great Call App is a nice alternative to the “Life Alert or Lifeline” systems that tend to market to the older generation. This App is great because it has an easy to use interface and has GPS. Great for any age.
  • With the Samsung Galaxy S4 Life Companion you can also keep fit and monitor your health by using your phone by tracking your steps, heart rate, blood sugar and more.
  • Similar to the FitBit that I use which syncs with my phone and computer.

3. Lighting and contrast are super important!

Scott and I went to a lot of sessions on vision, hearing, and the use of lighting to help make a space easy to use and visually easy to navigate. We learned way too much information to summarize here, but we hope to write more about that soon!

Basic point – good lighting is essential to the way we communicate within an environment.

4. Universal Design changes the culture of a community.

Finally I want to highlight a session I attended given by Architect Sally Sawanson from San Francisco, CA. She presented on a project she completed at J.O. Ford Elementary School in Richmond, CA that completely changed the culture and increased the learning and feel of the community and  this school.

Before construction, the old school was falling apart and there was a lot of poverty, crime, and hungry families in the area. Sally wanted to change that. She used universal design principles to make this a place the community cherished and a place they wanted to live and grow. She used a lot of open spaces, indoor/outdoor classrooms, a garden to grow food and learn about science. She used meaningful colors to make the space fun and help with people finding their way around the school. She wanted a place for children and their families to play, learn, and have fun in a safe place. The design truly increased the function of the school.

“There’s a lot of ownership at the school. A lot of schools in the area are not taken care of, and what I wanted was for the students, staff and community to take ownership and pride over the new school. I kept telling the community ‘this is your school,'” – Swanson

Here’s a PDF of an article about the school. It was found on Sally’s site. It’s truly worth the read.

Moving Forward

So the point of taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learned at UDS5 was the importance of us understanding that we’re not only trying to make homes usable and safer for individuals, but we’re trying to make a dent in our communities and in our culture (just as others are trying to do in their communities). The joy of walking around town, buying things at local businesses, and participating in leisure activities are important parts of our lives. Universally designed places, products, and programs are more than just making accommodations for those with specific needs, it’s about allowing people to enjoy the experience of life through the avenue of good, functional design.

Here are a few more posts on Day 1 and Day 2 of our experience at UD Summit 5 last week!

Day One at Universal Design Summit 5

Today was a busy day in St. Louis at UDS5!

We toured three properties and a community space with universal design and accessibility principles throughout. We saw some great things and I took lots of pictures so of course I wanted to share!

6 North Apartments

All of the apartments are built with universal design principles so anyone can stay in any apartment and their fitness center had extra floor space for people to easily move around. Not only did they have traditional apartments, but they also sell business/apartment units for individuals to have a specific space for their business if they run them out of their homes.

I didn’t get pictures of everything, but here are a few features highlighted in the below pictures.

  • Interior and exterior apartment entry without steps
  • Large easy to open windows to let in lots of natural light
  • An adjustable table in the island to allow users to stand or sit when preparing a meal
  • Raised dishwasher and oven in the cabinetry
  • Roll under sink with the ability for individuals  to open and close cabinetry underneath if desired
  • Adjustable closet cabinetry
  • Easy to use washer and dryers

Leather Trades Artist Lofts

This is in a super trendy arts district in town and actually has several areas within the building for tenants to use studio space. Yes! Specific studio spaces for painters, sculptors, performers, and more. The space was open and had lots of flexible features for individuals to move around. Even better was lots of color contrast within the environment to help people who have trouble with their vision (counter-tops against appliances, walls against floors), as well as lots of great pantry storage beside a stove with controls on the front for easy reach.

North Sarah Apartments

These apartments were modeled after 6 North Apartments above. They are affordable for a wide range of people and have several floor plans. The great thing about this new community is the plan to build a community of sorts with lots of things within walking distance. This includes transportation close by, a grocery store, and walking path just to name a few.

Important things to note in pictures taken here in the main unit are rocker style light switches, low controls for heating and air, as well as a higher outlet for easier manipulation.

In the community space there were low workspaces, low storage, and easy to use kitchen faucet, as well as good color contrast between the floor and cabinetry to assist those with visual difficulties.

City Garden

Is a neat community outdoor space with sculptures galore that are approachable for kids and adults alike. I saw kids playing in fountains, adults climbing on sculptures, and people running and walking around the beautiful accessible landscape. Some things were done well and some things needed a bit of attention.

Take note of the following things:

  • Contrast of materials on walkways and landscape to give visual and tactile cues for walkways and pathways.
  • Ability for anyone to go up and touch/interact with sculptures without having to negotiate a step.
  • Most pathways were solid materials – and the ones with gravel were hard to move through in a wheelchair.
  • Edges of some pathways were raised to give individuals a barrier so they wouldn’t roll off using a mobility device, or can be used as a detection for those with visual impairments.


Whew! We saw lots of great stuff today and are looking forward to two more days at the conference.

More updates to come!

Universal design and advances in technology.

Universal design is about accommodating all types of individuals with or without disabilities. When someone needs to use a wheelchair, they do so to adapt to the environment. Wheelchairs are not characteristic of universal design, but universally-designed homes and businesses allow someone who needs to use a wheelchair to access a space the same way as someone who doesn’t need adaptive equipment.

This morning I had a friend text me this picture of an old wooden wheelchair found at an antique store. Audra Hall is a physical therapist and has a lot of experience prescribing wheelchairs to fit the needs of all sorts of people.

Continue reading “Universal design and advances in technology.”

Hidden universal design feature: blocking in bathroom walls.

A big part of universal design is flexibility and adaptability. This is super important in the bathroom. Although the bathroom can be a tricky place to design for changes that may occur functionally over the years, blocking is one important thing to consider doing inside the walls.

Continue reading “Hidden universal design feature: blocking in bathroom walls.”