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Project Will Advance Universal Design, Improve Accessibility

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 7, 2010

“It represents a continuing commitment by NIDRR to our research program and recognition that the IDeA Center is the leading research and development center in this field.”
Edward Steinfeld, Director,
Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access

UB and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute are partnering on a $4.75 million initiative to make housing, public buildings and outdoor spaces more accessible for people with disabilities and people of all ages.

The five-year effort, which launched Oct. 1, encompasses multiple research and development projects on such topics as home modifications and the design of public rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and street crossings.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) is funding the work with a grant that establishes UB and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute as partners in a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Universal Design in the Built Environment.

Edward Steinfeld, UB professor of architecture and director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), is principal investigator. James Lenker, UB assistant professor of rehabilitation science, is co-principal investigator. Steinfeld and Lenker are co-directing the new RERC, along with Jordana Maisel, the IDeA Center’s director of outreach and policy studies, and Geoff Fernie, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute’s vice president for research.

The support from NIDRR recognizes UB’s record of success: The current award is the third consecutive five-year RERC grant for universal design that IDeA Center researchers have received. Universal design refers to the creation of products and environments that are usable for people of diverse abilities.

“Our new grant will continue funding for the only major center of excellence in the field of universal design of the built environment,” Steinfeld said. “It represents a continuing commitment by NIDRR to our research program and recognition that the IDeA Center is the leading research and development center in this field.

Edward Steinfeld

Edward Steinfeld is professor of architecture

“The resources provided from this grant will help us initiate new research and development activities,” Steinfeld added. “Through a series of partnerships with industry, we will develop several innovative products and bring others, already in the pipeline, to commercialization.”

Major goals of the initiative include clarifying and improving the definition of universal design, and improving the evidence base for practice in the field. The effort will help increase the pool of professionals who practice universal design, with some research dollars supporting advanced graduate assistantships and continuing education.

“It’s important research on a societal level because we’re striving to improve the usability of home and community environments, particularly for older adults and people with disabilities. At the university level, it’s exciting because we have a highly productive and cohesive team that includes faculty and staff with backgrounds in architecture, urban planning, human factors engineering and occupational therapy,” said Lenker, who is in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. “It’s a very stimulating opportunity for our students to work with faculty and students from disciplines outside their own.”

The many projects that UB and the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute will complete over the five-year grant cycle include the following:

  • An evaluation of the effectiveness of programs that help the elderly and people with disabilities modify their homes to improve accessibility. Danise Levine, architect and assistant director of the IDeA Center, has designed nearly 450 home modifications in Western New York since 1996. As part of the NIDRR-funded initiative, UB researchers will interview Levine’s past clients and other home-modification clients across the country to identify best practices and find out what worked. Examples of home modifications include removing bathtubs and installing roll-in showers, or installing a ramp or lift to improve usability.
  • A study of the effectiveness of current standards for universal design. William R. Greiner Hall, a UB residence hall under construction, incorporates universal design principles. To gauge the strength of the design, a research team will invite people with disabilities to compare their experiences navigating Greiner Hall to their experiences navigating a building that does not incorporate universal design.
  • An examination of the use of universal design in public rights-of-way.  Researchers from the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute will study the use of walking and wheeling surfaces in a cold-weather simulation chamber, analyzing how well people with disabilities are able to navigate stairs, sidewalks and curb cuts. UB researchers will assess the impact of “complete streets” policies by conducting field research and surveying officials of municipalities that have implemented such policies. Complete streets policies are designed to make streets safe for all users, including drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages.

In addition to its work on the RERC grant for universal design, the IDeA Center, part of the School of Architecture and Planning, is also collaborating with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University on a five-year RERC project to advance public transportation for people with disabilities. Steinfeld’s son, Aaron Steinfeld, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, is principal investigator on that initiative, and the two Steinfelds—father and son—are co-directing the project.