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
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
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
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:
standards for door widths (standard doors
are 28 to 32 inches wide; universal design pushes
for doors 32 to 36 inches wide).
turning radius in kitchens and bathrooms.
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
“ 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
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.
about ZeroStep is available at www. zerostep.org
or by calling (616) 949-1100, ext. 249. GR