Innovative Practice 2018 on Accessibility

A community centre built on Universal Design principles

The Mary Free Bed YMCA is a 36 acre community centre supporting children, adults, and families in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The facility was designed using the principles of Universal Design and is the first building in the world to be certified by the Global Universal Design Commission. The YMCA was built to provide an inclusive, accessible campus for all community members. Currently, the center has over 200 adaptive sports athletes that access the YMCA for practice, tournaments, and fitness.

“The Mary Free Bed YMCA was designed using the principles of Universal Design. What that means for us is there are no stairs anywhere in the building and my son can move around with ease. We don’t have to think about where the handicap entrance is or how we move between levels – even the family locker rooms here are a huge help for us.”

About the practice at a glance
Name of Innovative Practice:A community centre built on Universal Design principles
Organisation:Progressive AE
of Implementation
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA


Since 2015, the following has been achieved:

  • 291 per cent increase in memberships.
  • 200 per cent more senior members.
  • 25 per cent increase in net revenue.
  • More than 200 adaptive sports athletes access the YMCA for practice, tournaments, and fitness.


People with disabilities often,find it difficult to workout or exercise because many community fitness/wellness centres are not designed, or have the proper equipment to meet their needs, notably in the ares of healthy living, wellness, healthy aging, adaptive fitness, nutrition education, and youth leadership.


The vision for the Mary Free Bed YMCA was to create a campus that would serve as a new standard of collaboration and inclusion while supporting new and innovative programming. The facility was meant to be a model for all future YMCA buildings, both locally and around the country. With zero stairs throughout the 120,000 square foot facility and 36-acre campus, vertical circulation is achieved through a centrally-located ramp that creates equality among users. The ramp also assists in wayfinding, giving people a large architectural feature by which to orient themselves.A picture of a yellow ramp in the sport facilities.
Color also plays a large role in terms of psychological effect and in guiding people with visual impairments. For example, the contrasting colors of the track lanes make them more visible, and the yellow ramp indicates an important building feature. Other features include a transfer station for the independent use of the pools, slip-resistant flooring, a wheelchair softball field, hearing loops throughout, and specialized filtration and acoustical systems in the aquatic environments.


The Mary Free Bed YMCA has been growing in terms of sports membership, programmes, and partnerships. Additionally, the facility has received considerable attention from higher education organizations, rehabilitation hospitals, and accessibility committees – all of which are eager to learn more about Universal Design and possible application to meet their own needs.
The facility has the ability to be replicated internationally. Community members are now able to access healthy living services, and the local rehabilitation hospital is using the YMCA as part of its rehabilitation programme.
The Mary Free Bed YMCA is financed through membership fees and programme revenues (80 per cent), and grants, donations and fundraising (20 per cent). A second-generation scenario could result in a more substantial rehabilitation hospital component, driving additional revenue from an on-site physician’s practice.
Men and women on wheelchairs playing basketball.

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