“Aaaaah …” That’s the sound we typically hear when most people enter the bath tub. Unfortunately, however, for many, the utterance is more like, “Ugh!” or “Ouch!” That’s because according to recent surveys, only about half of elderly disabled households have the home modifications they need.

But it’s not just disabled folks that require a safe bath — bathrooms can present numerous challenges, regardless of situation. From the expecting mother whose center of balance may be a bit off-kilter … to the “weekend warrior” who pulled a hamstring playing football with his old college buddies … to the six-year-old who is now showering on her own and needs extra support in the bath … everyone can benefit from universal design products. In fact, at one time or another in our lives, almost all of us will experience a temporary or permanent disability.

What Is Universal Design?

So, what exactly is universal design? And how do we go about implementing it into our homes? According to the experts, the definition of universal design is a home that is user-friendly, regardless of a person’s age or limitations — creating an environment that is safer, more functional and comfortable.

“The goal of universal design is to help people retain their independent lifestyles,” says Brian Grant, senior product manager at Creative Specialties International, a division of Moen Incorporated, and a leading designer and manufacturer of the new Home Care line of bath safety items. “It’s finding products that meet the perfect balance of safety and function, but with an appealing design. The best universal designs are those that blend seamlessly into the home and become an integral part of the room and its décor.”

To achieve a stylish approach with universal design, many manufacturers are working to create products with safety features that fit into the overall style of the room. New offerings include items which are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

And the best news? You don’t need to build a new home to incorporate universal design features and products. Many new products can be incorporated into an existing home plan – making it easier than ever before to begin making your home a more comfortable place to live.

Where Should I Start?

While universal design elements can be implemented in all areas of the home, the room that should receive first priority is the bath. Slippery floors, bursts of scalding water and cramped quarters in a shower or tub can be obstacles for anyone — and for a person with a disability, these hazards are magnified. In fact, for many, the bathroom itself can be an obstacle to independent living.

Even though minimal effort can result in maximum results, many homeowners are reluctant to install universally designed products for fear of their “clinical” look with bulky and obtrusive designs. However, that is no longer the case. Today’s products feature designs with sturdy construction and appealing design.

So, where should you start when creating a universally designed bath? The main concern should be the bathtub or shower, as this is the location that causes the most slips and falls. The following are a few recommendations to incorporate universal design in this area:

Showers
Because the risk of scalding increases for the disabled or elderly, equip your home with a pressure-balanced shower system. Its valve maintains an even water temperature so shower users will not feel a hot or cold surge in water (commonly referred to as “shower shock”). Even when running a dishwasher or flushing a toilet, the valve ensures that the water remains within two degrees to keep the shower temperature consistent, comfortable and safe.

Grab Bars
Grab bars give you something to grab onto when entering and exiting the tub. In addition, they provide added stability while you are in the shower. Once institutional in appearance, they now come in a variety of stylish designs to fit any bath décor, and some even match faucet designs to create a coordinated suite look for the bath. Consumers can typically choose from a variety of sizes, from 12 to 42 inches in length.

Adjustable Bath and Shower Chair
A shower chair is perfect for any individual who prefers, or finds it necessary, to sit while showering. Look for a product with non-slip rubber feet, as this feature will not only provide additional stability, but also protect the tub from nicks and scratches. Most shower chair legs are adjustable and should fit most bathtubs.

Hand-Held Shower
A hand-held shower, such as Moen’s Revolution, is the perfect accessory to a shower chair because the product allows you to manipulate the force, flow and direction of the water without having to reach the top of the shower. Be sure the handheld shower you choose has a large dial formed from a non-slip material to make it easy to hold and use in a wet environment. A note of caution regarding hand-held showers: many of today’s hand-held showers, while convenient for seniors and others, come attached to slide bars to adjust their height. However, these are not to be confused with grab bars, as they do not provide safe support.

Transfer Bench
Ideal for individuals who have trouble stepping up and over the side of a bathtub, a transfer bench is a perfect option for those afflicted by arthritis, a sports injury or recent surgery — as well as anyone who cannot easily squat, bend or lift and needs added security when entering the bath. A transfer bench features two legs that rest inside the bath and two legs that rest on the bathroom floor, so a person can sit down outside the tub and then move inside the tub by sliding across the bench. The product allows for a safe, fluid motion into the shower.

Beyond the Bath
While the bathtub and shower area should receive top priority, the rest of the bathroom should not be ignored when implementing universal design elements. Remember that the goal is to create ease of use in the bathroom. Following are a few suggestions for outside the tub area:

Elevated Toilet Seat
For those who have trouble bending or sitting, an elevated toilet seat is an excellent addition to the bath. Typically, an elevated toilet seat hooks onto the bowl so it rests naturally on the toilet rim and raises the seat higher than the standard 14-15 inches off the floor. When purchasing an elevated toilet seat, look for products that offer a locking mechanism for added stability — as well as those that can be easily removed for cleaning or when company is visiting.

Taps
A universally-designed bathroom should feature a tap with lever handles or sensors. These attributes make them easy to activate, especially for those with a prosthetic device or persons who may suffer from arthritis. Today’s lever handle faucets are far from dull looking — many different finishes and styles will help create elegance in the bath with dramatic designs while still being universal in design.

Adding a Telephone
A final tip when incorporating universal design in your bath is to install a telephone with a cord that is easily reachable from the floor. If an accident occurs, rescue help is only a phone call away.