The Council on Aging of Ottawa | (613) 789-3577 | (613) 789-3577

Accessible Housing and Universal Design

People living with disabilities, including many older adults, require accessible built environments, including age-friendly accessible housing. The best way to ensure this requirement is to adopt Universal Design.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design (also called inclusive design or barrier-free design) is the design and structure of an environment so it can be understood, accessed, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age or ability.

When architects and city planners use universal design principles, they can create environments that meet the diverse needs and abilities of all, including children, parents, older adults, and people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses.

There are seven principles of universal design that help guide the design process of environments, products, and communications. The design:

  1. Is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Provides appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

One familiar example of universal design is the sidewalk ramp or curb cut. A curb cut is essential for people using wheelchairs; it also benefits kids riding bikes, seniors using walkers, parents pushing strollers, and delivery people pulling heavy dollies. When something is universally designed, it can be used easily by everyone.

Other examples of places or products using principles of universal design are:

  • ramp entrances
  • automatic doors (buttons and sensor types)
  • lever door and faucet handles
  • flat panel light switches

Why should we care about universal design?

Universal design ensures a space is accessible, usable, and convenient for everyone regardless of age or ability. It is inclusive for all. An accessible school, library, community centre, or park means everyone can participate fully in their community.

Universal design addresses the aging of the population and the growing number of people living with a disability in our city and province.

In 2017, 22% of Canadians reported living with a disability. This rose to 37.8% among those 65 years and older, and 47.4% for persons aged 75 years and older. About half of those 65 years and older with disabilities said they began having difficulties or activity limitations before age 65. And the older population will grow rapidly over the next 20 years. In fact, Ottawa’s older adult population is expected to reach 25% by 2035.

The lack of universal design in houses, apartments, condominiums, and other built environments limits where individuals can live and function independently for as long as possible within their own communities. People are required to relocate as their functional abilities (mobility, sight, hearing, and cognition) change over time due to aging, injury, and/or illness.

To address these issues, The Council on Aging of Ottawa calls on the Province of Ontario and the City of Ottawa to:

  • Amend Ontario’s Building Code to make universal design the mandatory standard for 100% of all new housing units and public buildings.
  • Prioritize universal design construction, consistent with their obligations under the Human Rights Code.
  • Continue and expand programs that provide funding to older adults and persons with disabilities for essential repairs and home accessibility modifications that support independent living.

References and Further Learning

Accessible Housing Network:

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design:

Rick Hansen Foundation:

Statistic Canada: Canadian Survey on Disability Reports, A demographic, employment and income profile of Canadians with disabilities aged 15 years and over, 2017

The Age-Friendly Housing Committee produced this fact sheet.

For more information, visit