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  • Richard Duncan

Hidden Universal Design: Commercial Doors


One way for a product or architectural feature to arrive at a universal outcome is through the intention of serving the needs of a narrow user group. The now ubiquitous automatic opening doors at supermarkets entered service to ease passage for customers pushing shopping carts or carrying packages in their arms. In fact, pushing a shopping cart or carrying packages makes operating a standard commercial hinged door more difficult for most of us. Sometimes we refer to people who have difficulty performing everyday tasks as, “circumstantially disabled.” That is, the particular manner of the task performance itself puts the person at a disadvantage, and in a position not typical of their day-to-day human performance characteristics. All of us experience this phenomenon every day without thinking about it. It represents one of the key use patterns that universal design was intended to ameliorate. In solving those challenges, the door manufacturers also assisted many others who might have had trouble operating the doors even if they weren't dealing with their purchased items. In this case, the unintended beneficiaries of these doors have been those with mobility problems, people who are smaller, children, older shoppers, those with balance or strength problems, etc. In true universal fashion, nearly everyone benefits from commercial doors that operate with automatic opening features.


The images and commentary in this article take a look at automatic opening doors and why they are so universal.


In this image, a woman who is using a manual wheelchair is seen as she is about to pass through the doorway of a grocery store through which the intended beneficiary of these doors is also passing: a man who is walking behind the grocery cart that he is pushing. Whether carrying packages or not, the woman would certainly have some trouble with standard hinged doors with typical door weight. The gentleman would have been at least circumstantially disabled by standard hinged doors due to the need to maneuver himself and the cart. Widely used, “no-touch” automatic doors accommodate all types of users, including those who have mobility challenges, those pushing carts, as well as those whose hands are filled with purchases. Simple, and in common use, the wide automatic door is an excellent example of Universal Design.


With her hands full, this image depicts another originally intended beneficiary, a woman departing a grocery store carrying multiple grocery bags, as well as her personal belongings. Had there have been a door handle with which she'd have to contend, her exit would have been hampered, and made much more complicated. Whether carrying bags or not, some people would lack adequate strength to manage many standard hinged doors, that have closers that add to the difficultly of opening.



Wheeling a hand truck, this image depicts a man departing a grocery store transporting a number of boxes to his vehicle. In order to pass out through the doorway safely, both his hands are needed to control the hand truck.


In this image, a woman is wearing a leg brace perhaps from a temporary health problem. This reduces the use of her left knee and leg while entering a grocery store through its automatic, electronic eye-controlled doorway. The automatic doors reduce the amount of effort needed by all who enter the doorway, which includes those experiencing reduced mobility such as this woman with an impaired gait. Otherwise, the woman might have had to apply weight on her leg and pivot to open and pass through a standard door: difficult and possibly painful.


In this image, an older woman is passing through the automatic sliding doors at the store. She doesn't have to shift her bags or alter her movement to leave the store. 


In this image, a grocery store worker is shown exiting the store through its automatically-controlled front entrance, while he was pushing a cart laden with bags of groceries. The safe mode of pushing the cart required that both hands be used, in order to guide it along its path to the vehicle, which he’d then load.


These doors have been so successful, we imagine that today, one couldn’t open many stores and buildings without doors like these. These doors fulfill the following Universal Design Principles/Guidelines:


  • Provide the same means of use for all users identical whenever possible equivalent when not

  • Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users

  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users

  • Make the design appealing to all users

  • Provide choice in methods of use

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity

  • Provide fail safe features

  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position

  • Use reasonable operating forces

  • Minimize repetitive actions

  • Minimize sustained physical effort

  • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance

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The Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute is a non-profit organization based in North Carolina dedicated to promoting the concept and practice of accessible and universal design. The Institute's work manifests the belief that all new environments and products, to the greatest extent possible, should and can be usable by everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance.

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