For their biannual conference to be held later this year, the Association of Consultants in Access Australia (ACAA) have made the theme of the conference ‘Universal Design – a better way.’

The keynote speaker for the conference is professor Edward Steinfeld, director of the US-based Centre for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA). Steinfeld is seen as a leader in the area and his work has made a considerable contribution to the evolution of universal design (UD) in recent years.

There have been a number of criticisms of UD and the principles that have been established to define it. Some of these are that they don’t necessarily fit the needs of every field of design, that they lack clarity of purpose, that they lack the ability for them to be measured and benchmarked, and that there is a lack of an evidence base, amongst others. One could argue, however, that UD is in its relative infancy and that a framework and knowledge base surrounding the movement will grow and improve with time.

Steinfeld argues that clarifying specific goals for universal design is a useful step in this progression and has formulated these as follows:

  1. Body fit: Accommodating a wide range of body sizes and abilities
  2. Comfort: Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function
  3. Awareness: Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived
  4. Understanding: Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous
  5. Wellness: Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease, and prevention of injury
  6. Social integration: Treating all groups with dignity and respect
  7. Personalisation: Incorporating opportunities for choice and expression of individual preferences
  8. Cultural appropriateness: Respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social and environmental context of any design project

Four of those address human performance (anthropometry, biomechanics, perception and cognition) while the others relate to social participation and health.

The aim of formulating these was to provide improved clarity and greater measurability of outcomes while also maintaining an alignment to the original principles of UD. Steinfeld and his co-authors felt it was important not to confine models of practice but to allow each industry to develop practices which are compatible to the particular industry’s needs.

This in itself reinforces the notion of UD framed as a process and not an end state. It is a process of continual improvement and not a finalised item meeting a set of traditional requisite requirements.

So what will this all mean in practice for the building industry? The argument is that accessibility standards should represent a minimum level for building owners and designers to comply with anti-discrimination laws such as our Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). They should not act to stifle creativity and innovation in individual projects by extending opportunities to extend performance, health and wellness, inclusiveness, participation and safety.

An example and common occurrence in the design and construction of buildings is to place a ramp adjacent to an entry stair. The ramp would provide a ‘compliant’ gradient as well as components such as handrails, handrail extensions, tactile ground surface indicators and kerb rails to improve usability. However, it may still require users to travel further to gain access to it, may be separate to the access method of other users and visitors of the building, and may still require significant effort to negotiate (the BCA currently allows for a rise of up to 3.6 metres to be addressed via ramped access at a gradient of 1:14).

An approach better reflecting the principles and goals of UD may be to better evaluate topography at a very early stage of the project to ensure at grade entry to all users. Where a ramp is still necessary, this may see the ramp as the main access point to the building for all users. It could also see the ramp be shorter, hopefully shallower and run in a direction consistent with pathways and pedestrian movement within the site. The width of the ramp would be adequate to address the level of traffic anticipated at this location and not the minimum egress requirement. Landings would be large enough to accommodate the largest mobility aid, pram or removalist trolley and may incorporate seating for resting. Finishes would be slip resistant and provide good visual contrast to the surrounding surfaces they will be viewed against. Landings may also be lightly graded to ensure good water run-off and no ponding.

From the user’s perspective, the resulting design response would mean less effort, more inclusive access which is easily perceptible, and a safer environment seeing a reduced incidence in slips, trips and falls occurring.