Universal Design is Good for the Community

You’ve heard of it. But have you ever really thought about what those 2 words mean, individually and together? Have you considered the implications for unrestricted access to life’s activities that come along with them?

Universal is defined as: of affecting or done by all people or things in the world or in a particular group; applicable to all cases.

Design is defined as: a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made.

When combined, Universal Design becomes more than a buzz word. Universal Design becomes a PHILOSOPHY that benefits the community.  Universal Design becomes a VERB that promotes inclusion in all settings and for all activities.  

The idea of Universal Design, aka designing for all, emerged in the 1990’s and focuses on establishing social inclusion for the broadest population of individuals. The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design presents a clear description of what is meant by Universal Design and highlights its applicability and benefit to the community as a whole.

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet people’s needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

I know, no design is perfect.  However, by embracing a philosophy of designing for all, and being aware of the 7 principles of universal design as we modify environments, create curriculum, design buildings and create devices – we can continue to move the focus of design toward promoting the fullest social inclusion possible.

Although the phase “Universal Design” is most often used with regard to architecture and physical accessibility of the environment, and this is the area most often considered, it spans beyond the physical structures that surrounds us.  Let’s review these 7 principles for Universal Design (as presented by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design) and consider some examples.

Principle 1: Equitable Use – The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use – Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use – Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Any examples pop into your mind?

Let’s consider a few pieces of assistive technology used in the mainstream (thus meeting principle #1), reflect on why they were originally created, and why they benefit us all.

  1. Automatic door opener – You know, those big blue or silver buttons (principle #4) that let us open the doors to building or spaces without the use of our hands.  These were conceptualized and created for ease of access for people with mobility challenges.  But they are beneficial to EVERYONE (principle #1).  Let me tell you, as a mom of two young children, who always has my hands full beyond capacity, this device is a LIFE SAVER.  Who doesn’t appreciate the option of opening the door with the light press of an elbow, knee, foot or hip – or even the wave of a hand (principles #2,3 & 6)!?
  2. Voice recognition software – In the 90’s this software was created for computers to allow transcription from unrecorded dictation.  This is different that using an audio recorder, and then transcribing on playback.  This is a game changer.  As long as the user has reasonably understood speech patterns (principles #1 &#6) they simply speak into a microphone and the computer program or internet browser receives the signal and written language is produced. And it goes beyond just writing.  It accepts commands to DO things.  Move the mouse, click on links, manipulate the computer.  I see the light bulb going on – yes, kind of like the original Siri.  So, jump forward 15 years and we are giving verbal commands to our phones, computers, devices like the Google Home or Amazon Echo, and even our cars (principle #2).  This one is a little weak on principles #3 and #5, but continues to get better.  BUT, this creates a medium for people without upper extremity mobility to interact with and CONTROL their environment.  To do things for themselves! Now, that benefits everyone!
  3. Push button can openers – I can’t say for certain the original intent and targeted audience for this device, such as the One Touch Can Opener, however, I can conjecture that is was for someone who struggled with grip strength, such as someone suffering from arthritis, and was unable to turn the handle on a traditional can opener.  So, to solve that problem someone created a can opener that connects by a magnet and removes the lid safely with the push of a button (principles #2,3,5,6 &7).  And just like that, a problem was potentially solved for any person with limited hand mobility due to arthritis, Cerebral Palsy, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, amputation, neuropathy, joint contractures, deformities of the hands, a caregiver holding a fussy child with only one hand free – the list can go on and on.  I doubt the person who designed this device conceptualized the immense impact a simple design change could have for a HUGE population of people (principles #1 & #2)

I am not oblivious to the fact that there will always be challenges in taking a universal design approach.  Such as,

  • No user is average, and no two users will experience the technology/environment in the same capacity or way.
  • What is considered accessible is highly dependent on the unique user, meaning what one user experiences as a barrier or solution may not be the same or apparent for someone else with (or without) a disability. 
  • Barriers that affect people with auditory, visual, sensory and/or psycho-social disabilities are often invisible to other users and often get overlooked.  

But it’s about changing the way we think through the design process.

Changing our perspective in seemingly insignificant ways can have significant impacts on what we produce – just keep that push button can opener example in mind next time you face an opportunity to solve a problem with a small change in perspective.

P.S. For an interesting read, and to see how the concept of universal design can be applied beyond the assistive technology world, see the link below.  Jon Reed summarized Mike Miles’ four principles of inclusive design.  While the article is specifically referring to digital designing, many of the same principles apply to designing anything for universal accessibility.   http://diginomica.com/2017/04/04/dont-design-for-average-design-for-inclusion-mike-miles-four-pillars-of-inclusive-design/

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