Universal Design: The Great Equalizer

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I was born with cerebral palsy, and, as a result, I use both a walker and a wheelchair. I have never been able to move independently. As much as being physically impaired can prove challenging, it is made much harder in a world that is not accessible. Accessibility is one of the most fundamental aspects of social development that a person can have. Everyone needs to have the right to explore their environment and the world around them to develop their sense of self and others. Unfortunately, physically disabled people often cannot do that. We are often told that anything is possible for us and that a positive attitude can go a long way, but no positive attitude can turn a flight of stairs into a handicap ramp.

There are many ways in which an environment can be reshaped, remodeled, and redone to accommodate people with disabilities and to carve out ways for us to navigate. Still, it does not have to be so complicated. Once a simple set of principles is applied, equity for disabled individuals becomes a much simpler issue. This set of principles 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.” While there’s still a long way to go, there are some stand-out examples of how universal design is being integrated into society.

The principles are:

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.

Many “As Seen On TV” products may market, if indirectly, to people with disabilities, but do so in a way that their product still has universal appeal to the general population. No matter who someone is, it is possible that they find, for example, that chopping food is annoying and would like a way to do so faster. In my case, an informercial of a device that helps people put on socks reminded me of a sock aide I already had.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use

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

An example of this principle is an accessible individual restroom which includes grab-bars and a sink and paper towel dispenser at a low height that anyone is free to use, allowing for comfort and privacy for all. Unfortunately, this bathroom style is rare in public spaces because it takes up a lot of space and costs a lot of money, but it is ideal.

PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use

The 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, arranges information consistent with its importance, and provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

One case where this applies is an automatic sliding door from a flat entrance, such as one might see in a supermarket. Doors, whether push or pull, can be difficult for people with disabilities to open. An automatic slide door is one of my favorite door styles, along with any door that comes with an automatic button. It is, unfortunately, comparatively rare compared to pull doors and doors with round knobs.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information

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

Using different modes (such as written, verbal and tactile) to present information, the design contrasts essential information and surroundings and makes the essential information as easy to understand as possible.

An example of this principle applied is open captioning for movies and television, and screen-readers which allow the reader of any text to follow along however they see fit. I have recently discovered that I prefer to read on the internet while listening to a text reader simultaneously, which is thankfully possible with today’s technology.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error

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

You can find this principle in your smartphone’s autocorrect. As someone with fine motor difficulties, this is especially helpful to me.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort

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

We can see this principle applied through speech-to-text applications for anyone who needs to “take notes” during a presentation or conversation but has trouble doing so. When working as a freelance journalist, I have found that this is one of the most efficient tools to use when conducting interviews.

Another example of this principle is having a modular ramp, such as one from National Ramp, with a slope of no more than 1:12/4.8° which makes it ADA compliant. This slope allows for safe passage for people who self-ambulate in manual wheelchairs, which requires more effort than those with motorized devices. Any higher slope, which is still manageable for powerchairs, would require too much physical effort for manual users.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use

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

This principle essentially ensures that a user, spectator, or viewer is comfortable sitting or standing and can participate fully, having all the room needed for any assistive device. All handicap ramps having turn platforms of 5’x5’ allows for the widest range of mobility devices to turn comfortably on an aluminum ramp.

The use of video conferencing software, especially since the COVID pandemic, has been a great equalizer for people who prefer to work remotely due to their disabilities. Were this always an option, the stigmatization of people who struggle with working in person would naturally start to fade and could disappear completely.

The goal of universal design is to incorporate all principles to be used simultaneously in as many areas of life as possible, whether personal or communal. Many applications already exist in some aspect, but with a deliberate effort, universal design can truly become universal and be more than just adding a wheelchair ramp or rubber threshold to a building.

About the Author:

Jeremy Einbinder is a freelance writer with a special interest and expertise in Disability Rights. Most prominent is his work with the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, writing blogs and magazine articles emphasizing the importance of social equality for disabled individuals. His writing is also featured on Can Do Work, an employment specialization firm with disabled clients. For more, visit Jeremy’s website

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