J. L. Mueller, Inc. Universal Design of Products      
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The Global Marketplace

Universal Design knows no boundaries. Global competition places greater emphasis on product differentiation beyond price alone. To compete in the global marketplace, product manufacturers must consider consumer populations that are increasingly diverse in culture, language, and stature. Product advertising, graphics, and instructions, as well as control configurations and other physical features may be affected. Following the Principles of Universal Design can help manufacturers develop products that are useful to these diverse populations and competitive in the global marketplace.

Around the world, elders are a primary focus in business and economic strategies. Considerable media attention is focused on the affects of the aging U.S. baby boomer generation on business practices, as well as government programs, including Social Security. U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of persons age 65 and older will reach 40 million by the year 2010. The 65 and older population is larger still in the UK, France, Sweden, and Germany. In Japan, where lifespans are longest, one-fourth of the population is expected to be 65 years or older by the year 2015 (Ministry of Welfare, 1998).

Aging Customers

At the beginning of the 20th century, elders were in the minority. The average life span was only 47 years. Improvements in medicine, vaccines, sanitation, and life styles during the course of the 1900's resulted in average lifespans over 75 years by the beginning of the 21st century. Nearly 80% of the population can now expect to live beyond age 65 (LaMendola, 1998).

In addition, many elders live with disabilities, including a large number of military veterans. Medical advances have enabled many others to survive illness and accidents that would have been fatal in previous generations. Significantly, the overwhelming majority of these elders are remaining independent longer, preferring to "age in place" into their retirement years, rather than move to nursing facilities. Seventy-seven percent of Americans age 45 and older live in single-family residences and eighty-six percent of Americans age 55 and older own their own homes (AARP, 2000). This trend has important implications to all makers of appliances and other products and services used in the home.

The coming generation of elders is more affluent and active than previous generations, making them a very attractive market to well-known companies such Ford, Tupperware, and Whirlpool [link to these case studies]. Baby boomers' real median household income is 35 to 53 percent higher than their parents (ASID, 2001). Reaching out to these aging customers has become a science in itself among marketing professionals.

By the year 2020, the entire baby boom generation will be over 55. As the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) points out, these 75 million aging baby boomers, and their children as they age, are likely to be very different customers from their parents and grandparents: "…products that offer youthfulness without denigrating aging will do well. These customers are not like their parents - they don't feel that older is ugly". (AARP, 1992).

Customers with Disabilities

People with disabilities are living longer and more independent lives than ever, as medical advances increase survival rates for serious illnesses and injuries (Jones and Sandford, 1996).

Disabilities can occur naturally with age or as a result of external causes. Though many people have age-related mental, physical, or sensory disabilities, there are millions of people of all ages with disabilities. Although spinal cord injuries and blindness are highly visible disabilities, most disabilities are less obvious. Among the most prevalent disabilities causing limitations of daily activities are heart disease and back problems:

Disabling Condition Number of Americans
  Heart disease 7.9 million
  Back Problems 7.7 million
  Injuries 7.2 million
  Arthritis 5.7 million
  Orthopedic impairments of lower extremity 2.8 million
  Asthma 2.6 million
  Diabetes 2.6 million
  Cancer 1.3 million
  Otheropedic impairments of upper extremity 1.2 million
  Cerebrovascular disease 1.2 million
  Partial or complete paralysis (quad, para, hemiplegia) 0.2 million
  Other causes 1.2 million


According to data from the 1997 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), mental disabilities also affect a significant number of Americans (McNeil, 1997)

Disabling Condition Number of Americans
  Learning disability 3.4 million
  Mental retardation 1.4 million
  Alzheimers, senility, or dementia 1.9 million
  Other mental/emotional condition 3.4 million

Also according to data from the 1997 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), these physical and mental disabilities affect the following daily activities:

Activity Limitation Number of Americans
  Difficulty concentrating 3.8 million
  Difficulty seeing 5.9 million
  Unable to see 1.8 million
  Difficulty hearing 7.1 million
  Unable to hear 0.8 million
  Difficulty speaking 1.8 million
  Unable to speak 0.5 million
  Difficulty lifting and carrying 15.2 million
  Difficulty grasping 6.8 million
  Difficulty walking 19.5 million
  Unable to walk (wheelchair users) 2.2 million

(McNeil, 1997)

Temporary Disabilities

Universal Design also considers those with less severe limitations. Though millions of Americans do live with chronic disabilities, millions also experience temporary limitations due to fractures and sprains, flu, and minor surgery, as well as due to circumstances such as fatigue, poor lighting, high noise levels, adverse weather, or foreign travel, where jet lag and communication difficulties can affect daily activities (Mueller, 1990).

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The Global Marketplace
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Aging Customers
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Customers with Disabilities

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Principles of Universal Design

Case Studies:


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McKechne Plastics
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Oxo Good Grips
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University of Virginia