What is Universal Design?

Universal design could save the world. That may seem like a gross exaggeration, but it’s not.

Universal design is the practice of creating things to be accessible to everyone. There is universal design for learning, universal design for architecture, universal design for product development, literally anything that can be created can have universal design.

Some people think of universal design as just focusing on people with disabilities, or that it makes life harder for non-disabled people, but, in reality, the greatest thing about universal design is that it benefits everyone…hence the “universal” part.

Here are some examples:

Universal Design for Learning

(These are heavily skewed towards accommodations made for deaf and hard of hearing students since that’s the population I worked with, but there are a million other examples)

  • Using a soundfield system…
    • …helps hard of hearing children by presenting the teacher’s voice at a consistent volume from a consistent source
    • …helps the students with auditory processing disorder
    • …helps the students with ADHD
    • …helps the teacher keep better control of the classroom and not strain their voice
  • Using sound dampening accommodations such as placing tennis balls on the bottom of chair legs…
    • …helps reduce background noise for hard of hearing children
    • …helps kids with sensory processing/integration disorders
    • …helps the teacher not lose their sanity over noise levels
  • Using captions on all media presented…
    • …helps students who are deaf or hard of hearing who may not be able to access the information through audition alone
    • …helps the kids who struggle with reading by exposing them to more printed words with simultaneous auditory input
    • …helps the English language learners for the same reason

Universal Design for Architecture

  • Installing ramps…
    • …helps people with mobility differences have access
    • …helps parents pushing strollers
    • …helps delivery people carting stuff on dollies
  • Using door handles instead of doorknobs…
    • …helps people with limb differences, arthritis, or any other condition that makes it difficult to grasp and turn a knob
    • …helps people who have their hands full
  • Designing bathroom stalls with a visual/tactile indicator of whether it is vacant or not…
    • …helps people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech issue who may not be able to respond if someone knocks
    • …helps people who cannot see if a stall is occupied
    • …helps people who have anxiety about finding an unoccupied stall (it’s a thing)

Universal Design for Products

  • Designing a bracelet with a magnetic clasp…
    • …helps people with limb differences, arthritis, and other conditions that may impact fine motor skills
    • …helps literally anyone who has ever tried to clasp their own bracelet
  • Designing apps or software with built in dictation, spellcheck, and word prediction…
    • …helps people with written language-based learning disabilities
    • …helps people with motor issues that impact their ability to type
    • …helps people who formulate their thoughts better through speaking than writing
  • Designing packaging with unique tactile features…
    • …helps people who are blind or have low vision be able to distinguish between different products
    • …helps people who are trying to find something without turning on a light, so they don’t disturb their significant other or roommate

There are TONS of other examples, but the main point is that people tend to think designing for people with disabilities means putting in a ton of extra work for something that benefits a small amount of people, when in reality it is putting in a fairly minor amount of work to benefit EVERYONE!

So how does universal design save the world? Well first of all, it is an inexpensive and effective way at reducing the number of disabling conditions in the world. Medical conditions, physical anomalies, cognitive delays, neurological diversity, etc., those are all going to continue to exist, but what makes something a disability is not the medical condition, but a lack of accessibility. If the world is a more accessible place, then fewer people will have disabling conditions. If people are able to live more independent lives, that benefits society and the economy. In America, we spend a lot of money taking care of people with disabilities, and some of that is completely necessary, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that many people with disabilities struggle to gain employment, and even when employed they may be paid below minimum wage. This lack of accessibility and opportunities leads to many people requiring financial government assistance who likely would be able to support themselves, at least to some degree, if given the opportunity.

The other way universal design can save the world, is not just by allowing people with disabilities access to the non-disabled world, but allowing the non-disabled world to benefit from including the diverse perspectives and abilities that disabled people provide. Maybe the cure for cancer is in the mind of a dyslexic child who just needs a screen reader to peruse scientific journals. Maybe the next Oscar winning film will be written by a Deaf screenwriter after they watch a fully captioned film festival. Maybe the next innovative car design will come from a non-disabled engineer who was inspired by the design of her waiter’s wheelchair while she was out to lunch…just to be clear, I’m not saying wheelchair users can’t be engineers, it was just a random example to make the point that people with disabilities may not have all the answers, but trying to emphasize that people without disabilities benefit from making things more accessible. The possibilities are limitless, as long as we stop limiting people.

Here are some cool youtube videos I enjoy about universal design:

  • Molly Burke is a blind youtuber.  In this video she did for Allure, she talks about universal design for makeup packaging.  She has a ton of other great videos on her own channel about accessibility.
  • The “Well-Equipped” series is from Epicurious.  These videos are not specifically for people with disabilities, but there is a gentleman who is a kitchen gadget design expert who tests various gadgets and redesigns them to be more effective.  One of the tricks he uses is the “left-handed oil test” where he tries to use the gadgets with his non-dominant hand oiled up so it’s harder to grab, which simulates how someone with mobility issues may be able or not able to use it. I just think it’s a really cool idea, something I would never have thought about, and maybe could inspire people involved with product design to come up with similar accessibility tests.

So, what are your thoughts on universal design? What is your favorite example of universal design?

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