Universal design needs to cross into mainstream design to service a growing market driven by changing demographics and a socially responsible business world looking for new opportunities.

Universal design has been described as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.”

When we consider the term ‘all people’ it covers a very wide spectrum of human abilities throughout all periods of a person’s life cycle. In recent times, universal design – or inclusive design – has moved into the mindsets of many industries, particularly web accessibility and information technology. This area has been quick to accept, advance, and create accessible online environments for everyone.

Some of this advancement has been driven by disability rights movements, or through disability legislation or adoption of new accessibility standards prescribing ‘minimum’ requirements. But universal design goes beyond disability and accessibility, it considers everyone.

The human race is diverse and in past decades our views on what has been considered ‘normal,’ along with the attitudinal and architectural barriers presented in a labelling society are slowly becoming more inclusive.

This is why universal design is an exciting concept. Whether you are eight years old or 80, one metre tall or two, universal design is just that – it is the design and manufacturing of ‘things’ that are usable by everyone.

We know people are living longer and that we have an ageing population, but we continue to design ‘things’ without consideration of everyone’s abilities, including building homes and infrastructure that create and accept barriers.

The Centre for Universal Design at the North Carolina State University has stated that our changing demographics must be considered and that facilities, devices, services, and programs must be designed to serve an increasingly diverse clientele. Furthermore, the Centre says the current generation of children, baby boomers, older adults, people with disabilities, and individuals inconvenienced by circumstance, constitutes a ‘market majority.’ This is where the business world needs to step up and take a proactive approach to identify and explore new opportunities for a growing market.

Many organisations have implemented corporate governance oversight. This has been defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as “the way in which boards oversee the running of a company by its managers, and how the board members are in turn accountable to shareholders and the company.”

Good corporate governance includes transparency and the ability to enforce the rights and prerogatives of all shareholders and directors. It ensures applicable legislation is complied with, but can also adopt voluntary practices which result in best performance. As the Centre for Universal Design has identified that people who may be affected by poor design constitutes a market majority, surely businesses should consider this majority, including the baby boomer generation, when making board decisions.

Along with governance comes corporate social responsibility, which has been described as the link between corporate governance and what is seen as equitable and fair within the community and by an organisation’s employees.

Corporate social responsibility has been defined in various ways, but the World Business Council for Sustainable Development defines it as “the commitment of business to contribute to sustainable economic development, working with employees, their families and the local community.”

This concept of corporate social responsibility was founded approximately 60 years ago in the United States, not long before the birth of universal design. Since that time, the term has been labelled many things, including corporate citizenship, corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability. Whatever the phrase used, the founding basis is that there lies economic responsibility, legal responsibility and a social responsibility.

The Australian Network on Disability (AND) identified the opportunity this emerging market presented. AND believes corporate social responsibility is an important contributor to the success of long-term business, and that it should be viewed in a strategic business sense rather than simply being a ‘feel-good’ factor.

AND adds that people with disability “show commitment and loyalty that is unsurpassed,” which surely is a market worth catering for. People with disability represent close to 20 per cent of the Australian population and one in three people either have a disability or are likely to be close to someone with a disability.

In terms of the ageing population, 20 per cent of the population will be over 65 years of age by 2030. This proportion of society could have a significant impact on how successful a business is, both now and into the future. They spend like everyone else, and universal design (or how suitable, adaptable or usable a ‘thing’ is) will increasingly become a factor in a person’s decision making process.

So when we ask “should businesses care about universal design?” I believe the answer is an unequivocal “yes, they can’t afford not to.”