Universal Design

When we talk about accessibility in the United States, we often talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and if we are lucky, the concept of universal design, but what is universal design? Universal design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. 

The concept of universal design is meant for the environment and/or product to be user-friendly for all people. Universal design is the ultimate component for true accessibility for all. Universal design is not required by law and the ADA. Something to consider: if you design something with the concept of universal design in mind, it must follow these seven principles:

Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to a diverse group of abilities. For example, automatic doors at the grocery store are not only useful for people who have physical limitations that prevent them from opening doors, they are also useful for people who have their hands full pushing a shopping cart or have lots of shopping bags in their hand.

Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. For example, scissors that can be used by people who are both left-handed or right-handed.

Simple and Intuitive Use

The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of someone’s experience, knowledge, language, or education. For example, when people use automatic doors, they are aware that their purpose is for people to enter and exit the building.

Perceptible Information

The design communicates information effectively, regardless of the user’s ability to physically navigate the setting or his or her sensory ability. For example, the design of a touch tone keypad on the phone is easy to understand.

Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintentional actions. For example, the five second timer (I would argue that five seconds is not a enough when you have issues with dexterity) on the SOS feature of an iPhone® to cancel the accidental call to 911 when the slider is pushed unintentionally.

Low physical effort

The design is used affectively without causing much strain or fatigue regardless of one’s ability. For example, the option to use an elevator with the easy push buttons to get to a higher level instead of going up a flight of stairs.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, and mobility aids needed. For example, buildings that have family sized/unisex accessible bathrooms usually only have one toilet and one sink in a space large enough to accommodate multiple people and/or a larger mobility aid.

Universal design is the key to accessibility for all, yet it is something often forgotten when designing a new building, activity or curriculum. Universal design benefits people with disabilities and all people. As we see an increase in technology, we have seen an increase in the use of universal design, yet is it enough? We still have many public facilities that lack automatic doors and when the conversation of accessibility is raised, it’s often only focused on physical disabilities. What about other disabilities? We must ensure everyone is accommodated and welcomed.

About Isabella Bullock: Isabella, or Izzy for short, is an employment specialist for the Center of Independent Living. She is an iced coffee enthusiast who enjoys getting lost in a good book. Click here to learn more about Isabella.