The Aesthetics of Doorknobs vs the Usability of Levers

As someone who deals with episodic fibromyalgia, Reynaud’s disease and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands (and a family history of relatives coping with the painful disease), I’m often frustrated by gripping and grasping motions that I can’t manage readily. 

Pumping gas can be excruciating, particularly in the winter when my Reynaud’s flares up (I love-love-love the pumps with the little notches that allow the gas to flow without me actually holding the nozzle).  Even turning on the shower faucet can be a serious chore some mornings.

Doorknobs in particular are notoriously difficult to handle when one’s grip is impaired, which can happen as a result of the ailments mentioned above, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, medication side effects, neurological damage, and in fact any illness that saps one’s strength… or even just as a result of aging.

Given my personal experiences as well as my work in the field of housing & disabilities, you’d think I’d be thrilled with the idea of getting rid of doorknobs in favor of levers, which require little in terms of strength, and can even be manipulated using one’s elbow instead of a hand.

But when I first read that the City of Vancouver had banned doorknobs, I flinched.  There’s an aesthetic about doorknobs that levers just can’t match.  They come in materials and colors of amazing variety – one of my previous houses had lovely antique glass doorknobs throughout – and are often backed by plates of intricate design.  Levers, while affording critical accessibility and independence for people who might otherwise be limited in life’s daily activities, just aren’t that pretty.

Read on for more on the topic.  Both the link to one of many articles on Vancouver’s Universal Design mandate and the text of the write-up are below.

In a move to make housing more universally accessible, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, has banned doorknobs in private homes and apartment buildings. Starting in March 2014, the doors of new buildings will be equipped instead with more ergonomically friendly, easier-to-use lever handles, the Vancouver Sun reports. It notes that while the bylaw passed in September is not retroactive, City Hall has set an example by replacing its art deco brass doorknobs, which date from 1936.

As University of British Columbia professor Tim Stainton explained in the article, the doorknob ban is in the spirit of a concept known as universal design, which holds that environments should be built to be usable by a majority of people regardless of age or capacity, rather than adapted to meet the needs of the elderly or disabled.

Design that makes everyday things easy to use even for those with physical challenges is the same principle that IDEO designers used when redesigning an OXO Good Grips potato peeler to be easier to use for arthritics. The designers noted that the human-centered design exercise “solved a specific problem for a specific group: Namely, helping people with reduced grip strength to peel things easier. Turned out, it offered a benefit to everyone.”

An article in Popular Science pointed out that turning doorknobs can be challenging for arthritic hands, citing a troubling statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 67 million adult Americans will have arthritis by 2030. With boomers living longer than ever it seems like the U.S. might want to follow Vancouver’s lead by adding private residences to the accessibility requirements that were established for public spaces with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

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