Universal DesignHow TechnologyArchitectureand Social Infrastructure Can Account For Individual Differences-02By Jeremy Einbinder

One of the ways in which people with disabilities might known that a product is easy to intuitively use or an environment is intuitively easy to navigate is how little it needed to be adapted specifically to their needs.

Paradoxically, the less something needs to be “made accessible” in order to use, the more accessible it might be. In a world dominated by an unconscious ideal of how someone’s body “should” work, or how someone “should” think or learn, that able-bodied neurotypical society has never abandoned since the advent of social classes, instances of life which do not have to be re-molded in order to satisfy our needs or wants is crucial.

This is universal design. Coined by architect Ronald Mace, universal design is, according to the National Disability Authority, “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.” It continues,

“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.”

The prevailing approach to accessibility seems to be one of workarounds. That is, a society which is by default inaccessible and, through patchwork, made incrementally more accessible as an add-on, or an afterthought. For example, a building with an accessible entrance in the back, away from everyone, or a small lift to combat stairs where a ramp could have been easily placed. The ramp would be an example of universal design.  The seven principles of universal design, according to the National Disability Authority, are as follows,


PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not. It is appealing to all users. It does not stigmatize them, and it equally ensures their privacy, security, and safety.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities, such right or left-handed access and use, accuracy, facilitating the user’s accuracy and precision, and facilitating their pace.

PRINCIPLE THREE: 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.

It is as simplistic as possible and consistent with user expectations and intuition. It also accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills, and arranges information consistent with its importance, and provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Using different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information, the design contrasts essential information and surrounding and makes the essential information as easy to understand as possible, and yet also presents a variety of ways information can be described. This is especially helpful for people with sensory difference.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

This design minimizes hazards and errors, built in such a way so that the user does not have to be overwhelmingly vigilant.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue, such as use in a neutral body position and the minimizing of repetition.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

This essentially ensures that a user, spectator or viewer is comfortable sitting or standing and can participate all the same, having all the room needed for any assistive device.


Universal design is slowly beginning to work its way into the mainstream, with companies starting to recognize its importance. Nike’s GO Flyease shoe is the company’s first hands-free sneaker, which will be made available on April 30. Although it doesn’t explicitly promote people with disabilities in its advertising, it is clear that a sneaker that does not require use of one’s hands may be extremely useful to the disability community.

Elsewhere, TechCrunch, an online newspaper covering high tech and start-up companies recently held a paneled discussion on universal design. A representative of the company said,

“We learned that on one level the notion of accessibility is very simple: making products that everybody can use. However, from a company-building point of view, it’s also important to think about accessibility from an internal tooling and processes perspective. It’s not enough to have accessible products for your users. If the software tools or ways of working at your startup exclude people with various disabilities, it’s infinitely harder to design accessible products anyway, as prospective or existing employees with disabilities will be prohibited from doing their best work.”

There is an immense challenge of shifting entire infrastructures and designs from being “adapted” to being universally applicable to as many people as possible. However, universal design is a simple and all-encompassing principle that could be the guiding force behind disability liberation and hopefully the destruction of systemic ableism.

An article on the website Popular Science written by Eleanor Cummins and titled, “Designing spaces with marginalized people in mind makes them better for everyone,” explains how.

“Today, these shallow slants,” referring to curb cuts, “are an essential feature of the pedestrian landscape across the United States.”

As opposed to the public thinking that curb cuts are especially designed for people with disabilities, the article posits that curb cuts are fully integrated into general society, as a normal part of design, a design that not only works for people with disabilities but for everyone else as well.

The “curb-cut effect,” which is the phenomenon of universal applicability, shows that supporting marginalized groups of people often ends up helping much larger swaths of society.

“Whether it’s applied to accessible design, investments in social welfare, or pioneering legislation, study after study shows the effect has the power to uplift us all,” Cummins says.

It is possible to have a world in which the differences in the way people navigate the world and perform their activities of daily life become smaller and smaller, and stigmatize people less and less. There is no possible environment that is too accessible, or one that marginalized able-bodied neurotypical people, so let’s make this world as accessible as humanly possible. That starts with the principle of universal design.

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Disability in Focus