Universal Design

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Universal design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other potentially-limiting factors.

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

Universal design emerged from earlier barrier-free concepts, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive and assistive technology and also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations.

As life expectancy rises and modern medicine increases the survival rate of those with significant injuries, illnesses, and birth defects, there is a growing interest in universal design. There are many industries in which universal design is having strong market penetration, but there are many others in which it has not yet been adopted to any great extent.

Universal design is also being applied to the design of technology, instruction, services, and other products and environments. An example: Curb cuts or sidewalk ramps, essential for people in wheelchairs but also used by all.

Another example is color-contrast dishware with steep sides that assists those with visual or dexterity problems:

There are also cabinets with pull-out shelves, kitchen counters of varying heights to accommodate different tasks and postures, and, amidst many of the world’s public transit systems, low-floor buses that “kneel” (bring their front end to ground level to eliminate gap) and/or are equipped with ramps rather than on-board lifts.

Principles of Universal Design

Many educational institutions and practitioners of universal design expound the following principles:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

Each principle is succinctly defined and contains a few brief guidelines that can be applied to design processes in both the physical and digital realms.

Goals of Universal Design

The definition(s) of the principles of universal design were expanded to include social participation and health-and-wellness. This, the 8 goals of universal design were also developed:

  1. Body Fit
  2. Comfort
  3. Awareness
  4. Understanding
  5. Wellness
  6. Social Integration
  7. Personalization
  8. Cultural Appropriateness

The first four goals are oriented toward human performance (anthropometry, biomechanics, perception, and cognition).

Wellness bridges human performance and social participation.

The last three goals address social participation outcomes.

Examples of Universal Design

In addition to the few examples laid out about, a few additional examples of universal design are below. Look around the next time you’re out and about & notice how these are integrated into everyday life:

  • Smooth, ground level entrances without stairs
  • Surface textures that require low force to traverse on level, less than 5 pounds force per 120 pounds rolling force
  • Surfaces that are stable, firm, and slip resistant
  • Wide interior doors (3’0″), hallways, and alcoves with 60″ × 60″ turning space at doors and dead-ends
  • Functional clearances for approach and use of elements and components
  • Lever handles for opening doors rather than twisting knobs
  • Single-hand operation with closed fist for operable components including fire alarm pull stations
  • Components that do not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist
  • Components that require less than 5 pounds of force to operate
  • Light switches with large flat panels rather than small toggle switches
  • Buttons and other controls that can be distinguished by touch
  • Bright and appropriate lighting, particularly task lighting
  • Auditory output redundant with information on visual displays
  • Visual output redundant with information in auditory output
  • Contrast controls on visual output
  • Use of meaningful icons with text labels
  • Clear lines of sight to reduce dependence on sound
  • Volume controls on auditory output
  • Speed controls on auditory output
  • Choice of language on speech output
  • Ramp access in swimming pools
  • Closed captioning on television networks
  • Signs with light-on-dark visual contrast
  • Web pages that provide alternative text to describe images
  • Instruction that presents material both orally and visually
  • Labels in large print on equipment control buttons
  • A museum that allows visitors to choose to listen to or read descriptions

This field is about making things accessible to all people (whether they have a disability or not).

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