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Access affirmed
Disability Advocates of Kent County’s ZeroStep program works to make universal design truly universal.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

An automobile accident on Sept. 24, 1976, left then-16-year-old Chuck Pierson confined to a wheelchair. Pierson’s parents outfitted their home with ramps to make it accessible for their son. Thirty years later, there are no ramps to be seen at the Sparta area home Pierson and his wife built in 2003.

Pierson, a marketing consultant with Image Builders Marketing, still relies on his wheelchair to get around. But the Piersons’ house was designed according to universal design principles by Rockford builder and ZeroStep advocate Rich Kogelschatz.

Universal design is the concept that all products and environments should be usable to the full extent by all people, without regard to age or physical ability. ZeroStep is the program established by Disability Advocates of Kent County in 2005 to educate the public on that concept.

And getting the word out is important, as Kogelschatz explained.

“ I do a lot of home shows and expos, and I can tell you: It’s amazing how many people I talk to about universal design and their eyes just light up. It’s a concept so many people still haven’t heard about.”

Disability Advocates of Kent County is working to change that. While there are other centers for independent living across the state, the ZeroStep program is unique to Kent County. It works by connecting individuals with contractors and builders such as Kogelschatz, who are experienced in building homes using universal design principles.

By involving occupational therapists in the consultation, ZeroStep also fosters an understanding of the aging process and the prognosis of any diseases the homeowner or a family member might face, all in order to design a home that can adapt over a lifetime.

According to Judith Williams, a certified aging-in-place specialist who coordinated the ZeroStep program through its first year of operation, builders who are on board with ZeroStep have an edge on their competition.

“ They’re going to be ahead of the market trend,” she said. “We have this large population of baby boomers, and they are predominately the individuals who are seeking out this kind of housing, because they realize that in the future they may need some of these features.”

Features of the universal design concept include:

No-step entry.

Expanded standards for door widths (standard doors are 28 to 32 inches wide; universal design pushes for doors 32 to 36 inches wide).

Increased turning radius in kitchens and bathrooms.

Wide hallways to accommodate mobility tools.

While the benefits of such building modifications for persons with disabilities are great, another benefit of universal design is that the concept is not specific to any ability level or age group.

“What universal design says is that you create an environment that would work for everyone,” Williams explained. “It’s the best way to create a universally accessible environment, certainly, but there’s a lot of universal design features that really don’t have anything to do with whether a person has a disability or not.”

Pierson noted the ease with which visitors to his home have been able to circulate, thanks to its no-step entries and wider-than-average doors and hallways.

“ Even the guys who were building the house liked it — especially when they started moving in appliances and furniture,” Pierson said. “They didn’t even realize they didn’t need to go up a step until they had already got the refrigerator inside!”

But if it is such a good idea, why isn’t every new home built according to universal design? Such a change is the ultimate goal of ZeroStep, but it takes longer than one year to implement.

“ It’s like nutritional information,” Williams said. “For years, doctors knew that certain foods were bad for you, but it wasn’t until that information was dispersed globally that consumers really started to make better choices.

“ Now that the word is getting out about ZeroStep, we hope homeowners will be able to make better choices, too, not only in Kent County, but across Michigan.”

Disability Advocates of Kent County hopes to franchise its ZeroStep program, now in its second year. With the proceeds, it pledges to create more accessible housing opportunities right here in Kent County.

Additional information about ZeroStep is available at www. or by calling (616) 949-1100, ext. 249. GR

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