Why Universal Design is Not Just ‘Access’ 1

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Monday, August 31st, 2015
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Universal Design (UD) is not a new concept.

The term is largely attributed to the late Ronald L. Mace, former program director of The Centre for Universal Design and is said to have been coined as early as the 1980s. Even so, at least locally in Australia, there seems to be an increasing focus on UD with several organisations attributing increasing value in it, at least principally. This has also seen substantial variation in the way these organisations interpret UD and of course ultimately the decisions they make with a view to its application.

Mace defined UD 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.” In a UK context, the term ‘inclusive design’ appears to be widely used, while the term ‘barrier free design’ appears in literature from other parts of the world including continental Europe. The definitions applied to each of these have historically demonstrated significant similarities.

While the history of UD emanates from the disability rights movement of the 1960s in the United States, and the increasing age of the population of most developing countries has been recognised as a key trend in what is seen as an expanding market for UD, the broader benefits cannot be ignored. Items such as kerb ramps, which are now mandatory, were initially incorporated to meet the needs of the relatively small user group of wheelchair users. However, it’s clear that most people find these beneficial. Parents propelling prams, children riding scooters and bicycles, shoppers pushing trolleys, removalists moving furniture, and service people ferrying equipment to work sites all clearly benefit from them.

Seven defining principles of UD were developed at The Centre for Universal Design – North Carolina State University in 1997. These principles are outlined in the table below:

access chart

The principles identified are broad in nature and certainly not prescriptive, which can be of benefit for designers in developing novel solutions which go beyond the current concepts and expectations of ‘accessibility.’ They therefore act to define an approach which places the end user at the centre of the design process rather than one which presents a finite set of dimensions and parameters which should be achieved.

The literature surrounding the UD movement has traditionally considered ‘accessibility’ a method of adding a set of features to an otherwise ‘inaccessible’ building or product. The term accessibility is often used to describe the fulfilment of measurable requirements and not necessarily how a building works for a broader range of users.

Complying with the provisions of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) or an Australian Standard is an example of this, and this in itself presents as a stigmatising and segregating practice given that certain ‘additional’ features are identified to a distinct group of users. Accessible sanitary facilities and accessible car spaces are often labelled ‘disabled’ toilets or ‘disabled’ car spaces in general building nomenclature and rhetoric, which in its self is ambiguous and highly stigmatising.

Though great inroads have been made over time in Australia, this is however where the current state of affairs lie. The context the building industry creates is one of compliance and adherence to a multitude of standards and requirements, and ‘accessibility’ has neatly found its place in this context.

Cover image via National Disability Authority
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  1. Jane Bringolf

    George, you may want to check the chart – there seems to be an error – some principles are repeated.