The Concept of Universal Design - 13 May 2008
by Edward Steinfeld
Read this article in Chinese (translated by Shuguang Kuai, proofread by Christina Li)
The idea that environments can support human function is not new to designers. But, the perception that design can enable one’s abilities and participation in society is something relatively new from a consumer perspective. In a global economy driven by technology, the pace of life is making usability more important. The cost of low productivity, inconvenience and errors is simply too high. The aging of the population worldwide is another important driver, especially in the highly developed countries that are still the prime market for consumer products.
Norman (2004) illustrates how products that are functional create a positive emotional response but other factors also come into play in the realm of emotions. For example, if a product is associated with design for disability, it can become stigmatized and avoided, even though it may have significant functional benefits. Universal design seeks to provide the benefits of enabling design without the negative connotation of design for disability.
The contemporary model of disability explicitly recognizes that both the social and physical environment are factors in the disablement process (see, for example, World Health Organization, 2001; Brandt & Pope, 1997) and that the process is not a direct causal relationship but, rather, highly probabilistic, i.e. impairment may have different impacts depending on the person, the environment and the resources available. This model shifts the focus of rehabilitation more towards the social and physical environment as an enabling force. Even more important, it recognizes that the process of disablement is actually universal and highly variable. Environment, as in the case of any child who has no way of reaching a school, can create limitations on activity and participation, even without the presence of impairment. Furthermore, the impact on two people with the same impairment can be very different, depending on personal factors. For example, a family who can afford private transportation could bring their child to school if there was no accessible public transit, while a family without those means cannot.
Contemporary disablement theory, then, puts more emphasis on improving the general environment although it recognizes that there will always be a need for assistive technology like hearing aids and wheelchairs. ”Universal design”, “inclusive design” or “design for all” are all names for a similar concept. The goal is to provide benefits to everyone by making the physical environment more usable, for a broader range of people, in more situations. By producing an environment that is more inclusive, there will be less need for specialized products for people with disabilities. Moreover, the benefits for all will generate a larger constituency to support the provision of increased usability. Universal design proponents argue that if this new paradigm is widely adopted, people without “disabilities” will become more effective advocates for improving access for those who have “disabilities.” They also believe that the practice of universal design will lead to greater social integration of people with disabilities, which will address social participation outcomes more effectively.
It should be noted that a person can live in a supportive environment but be trapped in it. In universal design, the emphasis is on providing broad support throughout the community and beyond, for a wider range of needs and to benefit the entire population. A good example is the curb ramp. They were first employed to help people who use wheelchairs gain safe access to community resources. Their benefits were rapidly appreciated by all pedestrians, especially parents pushing prams, bicyclists and skateboarders.
There is a perception that some design interventions that reduce barriers for one group of people will be counterproductive to another. For example, the provision of curb ramps may produce a hazard for people who have visual impairments. This can be true, if designed only for wheelchair users, but there are solutions to such problems. Universal design goes beyond the specification of solutions to solve problems of specific groups to holistic solutions that address a broad range of disabilities. For example, curb ramps can be treated with materials and colors that make them detectable to people with visual impairments and augmented by other technologies like audible and visual walk/don’t walk signals to make intersections safer for everyone.
Is universal design appropriate in less developed countries? Shouldn’t the first priority be on providing basic accessibility for people with disabilities? Some experts would argue that removing critical barriers is the priority in countries where there are no regulations yet or where existing regulations are being ignored. But, the universal design model may actually be more appropriate in countries where there has been little or no action on the regulatory front or enforcement is weak. Universal design is more a process leading to an ever-higher goal rather than an absolute condition. In fact, the term “universal designing” may be more appropriate (Steinfeld, 2007). The universal design philosophy can be applied to regulations, producing a different type of regulatory environment, one that may be more successful in places where resources for implementing regulations are minimal.
Accessible design can be defined as design that does not discriminate against people with disabilities. Universal design, in contrast, is generally defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Mace, 1985; Mullick & Steinfeld, 1997; Ostroff, 2001). This definition clearly encompasses accessible design but extends to goals beyond it. Note that some authors, like Dion (2006) use universal design to describe accessible design practices like accessibility regulations. But, the two terms are very different as indicated above.
At the present time, there are still competing terms and definitions for the same general idea. For example “Design for All” is defined as an “intervention in environments, products and services with the aim that everybody, including future generations, and without regard to age, capabilities or cultural origin, can enjoy participating in our societies” (Aragall, 2002) and is basically the same concept. “Design for the lifespan” or “transgenerational design” (Pirkl, 1994) refer to design focused on age related factors. This perspective also can be encompassed in the universal design framework.
Some authors and advocates prefer the term “inclusive design” and use it synonymously with universal design (Keates & Clarkson, 2003). Others prefer to define inclusive design as a broader range of practices concerned with design for social justice and view universal design as one of those practices. Still others view the term inclusive design as having more of a focus on social participation and view universal design as having too limited of a focus on functional ability and lacking a political and social program for change (Imrie, 2004). Accessibility has also been re-defined as universal design. For example, a report of a Group of Experts organized by the European Commission defined accessibility as: “….providing buildings and places that are designed and managed to be safe, healthy, convenient and enjoyable to use by all members of society...” (Lenarduzzi et al., 2003). Ironically, it could be argued that this is actually a better definition of universal design than the more widely used Mace definition.
The definition of accessibility above demonstrates, in a dramatic way, how the new paradigm of universal design is replacing the old paradigm of accessibility. Regardless of the paradigm shift, I believe that, due to the legal agenda of non-discrimination laws, there is still a need to distinguish between the two concepts. But, regardless of his criticism, my view is consistent with Imre’s - the agenda of universal design should be broader than disability issues and engage a social change mission. Although originating in the field of design for disability, universal design, or whatever you call it, should embrace other issues of social justice such as design for differences in gender, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.
The definitions of universal design alone do not specify approaches to design practice or provide tools for implementing the concept. To fill these needs, the Center on Universal Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, convened an expert group to develop the Principles of Universal Design. Rather than produce an extensive set of criteria or detailed standards, the group concluded that a limited number of basic Principles could be developed so that designers and others would be able to easily understand the implications of practicing universal design. Each Principle was also accompanied by a short set of basic design guidelines for implementing the Principle. This document has been disseminated widely including being translated into over twelve languages (Center on Universal Design, 2008).
The development of the Principles of Universal Design was an important landmark. They provided a clear operational definition of the concept as well as a useful tool for research and design practice. The simplicity yet comprehensiveness of the seven Principles made them easy to remember and easy to use in a variety of contexts:
Editor's note: Please read The Principle of Universal Design for more details.
PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
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.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.
The Principles present a framework for practice and a foundation for further developments in this field. Nevertheless, the concept of universal design, as currently conceived, is not perfect. There have, in fact, been many criticisms of both the definition of universal design and its Principles. These include concerns about language and clarity, difficulty in translation, lack of measurable guidelines, lack of an explicit evidence base, lack of a focus on affordability, and lack of an explicit mention of an aesthetic component (Steinfeld, 2006). It is likely that, in the years to come, these criticisms will be addressed by activities currently underway in the universal design community. Meanwhile, they provide a good tool to use in applying the concept in a wide range of domains.
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Dr. Steinfeld is a registered architect and design researcher. He is a Professor of Architecture and Adjunct Professor of Occupational Therapy at the University at Bufaflo.
One of the developers of the seminal Principles of Universal Design, he has published extensively and is known internationally for his research. Dr. Steinfeld has received 2 Progressive Architecture Awards for Applied Research and a Research Recognition Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2003, Dr. Steinfeld received a Distinguished Professor award by the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
Dr. Steinfeld is a member of RESNA, HFES, and AIA.
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