Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Spaces for All



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Universal Design ~ Friends and Pioneers

Years ago, I heard Tom Morrison, then the Executive Director of the United Cerebral Palsy center in Dallas, talk about attending a university in the 1950s. Morrison had cerebral palsy and walked with “c.p. moves,” as he called them. 

At the university, he found absolutely no accommodations for mobility-impaired persons. Buildings had stairs, long hallways, and narrow doors, and classes were scheduled throughout the campus without regard to the route one had to travel to get there on time.

With a sense of adventure and great humor, Morrison found ways to cope through his ingenuity. He had his buddies carry him upstairs if necessary. 

He bragged that he knew all the freight elevators and janitors on the campus because the janitors were the gatekeepers to the elevators, which made getting through his days a little easier. 

He found that back doors and basement floors were his ways to access what other students took for granted: just getting inside the door.

Today, we all appreciate the pioneers of the rights of disabled persons, such as Tom Morrison. In 1963, Selwyn Goldsmith wrote a book that set forth the concept of free access to all buildings for disabled people. 

North Carolina State University’s Ronald L. Mace invented the term “universal design.” Through these thinkers and doers, further developments were made, and the American Disability Act (ADA) was made possible.

Universal design is increasingly popular and common. Both public buildings and many private residences today have built-in accessibility. 

They are designed with people of all kinds of capabilities in mind. Here’s a little of what universal design entails.

Definition of Universal Design:

“Universal Design: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without needing adaptation or specialized design.

Home Modification: Adaptations to products and environments that enhance comfort, safety, and accessibility to increase functional independence and quality of life and decrease potential injury and safety hazards to all people with Universal Design principles.”

The Center for Universal Design; North Carolina State University

These seven principles can be used to assess existing designs, direct the design process, and educate designers and customers about the features of more usable products and places.

Seven Universal Design Principles

Equitable Use – All users are accommodated by wider entrances. People with a wide range of abilities will find it useful and marketable. Provisions for safety, security, and privacy. Design appealing to all users.

Flexibility in Use – Accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Wheelchair-accessible sinks, toilets, and baths.

Simple and Intuitive – Regardless of the user’s experience, expertise, language skills, or present concentration level, the design is simple to grasp. Light switches with a large flat on/off panels. Faucet handles are labeled with symbols or colors.

Perceptible Information – Regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory capacities, the design efficiently transmits important information to the user.

Tolerance for Error – The design reduces hazards of accidental or unintended actions. Slip-resistant surface in bottoms of bathtubs.

Low Physical Effort – Ramps instead of stairs at entrances. It can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue.

Size and Space for Approach and Use – Space to turn around and adequate clearance to approach and use stove tops and kitchen sinks. 

Regardless of the user’s body size, or mobility, adequate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use are provided.

Universal Design has affected architecture, legislation, environment, and product design and has spurred innovations and inventions. 

It has opened doors for access to all people, whether those doors are at the university, the workplace, or their own home. 

In Summary

Revolutionary thinkers like Selwyn Goldsmith and Ronald L. Mace pushed the boundaries of traditional design to bring about the concept of universal design.

This philosophy seeks to make products and environments accessible to everyone, as much as possible, without requiring special modifications. The American Disability Act (ADA) was ushered in due to their efforts. 

Universal design principles such as equity, flexibility, ease of use, and reduced physical strain can be incorporated into public and private spaces to promote accessibility and assist those with varied abilities to achieve greater autonomy. 

Numerous advances have been made in architecture, regulations, environment, and product design to make sites more inviting for all people.