Universal Design, Defined

“Universal design seeks to encourage attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. It is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of use.”

Ron Mace, FAIA (1941-1998), creator of the term ‘universal design’ and Founder of Center for Universal Design

Designers of places and products have traditionally considered the needs and capabilities of the average user. This assumption has given us a world that works well for some – the “average” person – but inadvertently creates barriers for others, including 55 million people in the U.S. today with some form of disability.

Societal acknowledgment of this fundamental inequity is evolving. Ground-breaking laws, including the Architectural Barriers Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act mandate minimum standards for physical and programmatic accessibility for people with a specific range of disabilities. At the same time, the disability community is advancing an approach that broadens the concept of accessibility to include all kinds of users, disabled and non-disabled, by implementing the Principles of Universal Design.

Adherents of the global universal design movement recognize that diversity in human ability is ordinary, not special. From birth through old age, human beings experience a range of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities or functional limitations that cause them to perceive and interact with their environments with varying dexterity. The ability to function comfortably, effectively, and independently profoundly affects whether a person is more, or less, disabled in a given context.

User-focused universal design considers and adapts to the widest range of needs and abilities, striving to create environments that people of all abilities can use in the same way to the greatest extent possible without adaptation and assistance. Greater independence leads to a more dignified experience, a desirable outcome for all.

When initiated at the beginning of a project, universal design informs design decisions that can lead to effective, often simple, solutions for a universally usable environment. Thoughtful design details seek to eliminate duplication of elements to serve differently-abled populations, thus providing everyone with the same experience moving through a given environment. Universal design should not be applied later in a project’s development, but is essentially integrated at the outset of a creative process to build good sustainable architecture that is supportive of human activities in an inclusive society.

The following guiding Principles of Universal Design, developed in 1997 by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, address the key design imperatives for realizing spaces and places that can be used effectively by people of all abilities:

  • Equitability – The design provides for the same experience for all users of diverse abilities, identical whenever possible, equivalent when not. The design does not segregate or stigmatize any user group. Provisions for privacy, safety, and security are equally available to all users and the design appeals to all users.
  • Flexibility – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities and provides choices in methods of use, including adaptability to different precision and pace of use.
  • Simplicity – The design eliminates unnecessary complexity and use is easy to understand regardless of the user’s knowledge, language skills or personal experience. The design should arrange information consistent with its importance and embrace intuitive use consistent with user expectations.
  • Perceptibility – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of the user’s sensory abilities. Different media, pictorial, audible and tactile, are used to present essential information with maximum legibility. Elements of an environment should be differentiated in ways that can be described for ease of instructions or directions.
  • Mobility – The design provides for the appropriate size and space for approach, reach and manipulation regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. Space is provided for assistive devices or personal assistance.
  • Safety – The design arranges elements to minimize hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions, and provides warnings and shields to hazards with fail safe features.
  • Suitability – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with low physical effort appropriate to the environment and with a minimum of fatigue. The design minimizes repetitive actions and sustained effort.

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