Universal Design

“Universal Design is 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.”

Simply put, the goal for Universal Design is to simplify life by making products, communications and the built environment as usable as possible, by as many people as possible, at little or no cost. [1]

The concept of Universal Design was first articulated in the 1970’s by architects who responded to an increased awareness of the need to accommodate individuals who have a disability while designing buildings and other public structures. Such designs were ultimately based on a set of principles by which the plans for all new structures would be judged. Thus, new buildings were designed with hallways, elevators and doors wide enough for wheelchairs. Lavatories, drinking fountains and sidewalks were also conformed to similar sets of standards. This benefitted all people, of all ages and all abilities.

Principles of Universal Design

In 1995 the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University brought together architects, designers, engineers and others to formulate key principles or concepts of universal design (Bowe, 2000). The resulting seven principles have been applied not only to the design of buildings and other public structures but also to other fields where accessibility is of concern, notably in education.

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

Universal Design in our day-to-day lives

Applying the principles of Universal Design makes structures — whether physical or not — accessible to everyone. Originally, changes to the physical environment of buildings and public spaces were done to ensure physical access for people with disabilities.

However, an unforeseen outgrowth of these accommodations soon became apparent. Shortly after these principles were implemented, it was discovered that people without disabilities also used and benefited from the accommodations originally intended only for people with disabilities.

What’s more, it was found that these principles anticipated needs, and, if followed before construction, post-construction changes become unnecessary. Thus, the idea is to put accommodations in place before an individual, with or without a disability, needs them. ‘Pre-fitting,’ not ‘retro-fitting,’ is the aim, and is often less pricey and time-consuming than trying to make accommodations ‘after the fact’.

Examples of Universal Design in the physical environment:

  • Public buildings with wide hallways and elevator doors (e.g. useful for those pushing supply carts or transporting large pieces of furniture)
  • TV programs with captions (e.g. useful in noisy spaces such as restaurants and bars or for people learning English as a second language)
  • Curb cuts, ramps. (e.g. useful for those pushing baby strollers, bicycle and skateboard riders, the elderly, etc.)

[1] Mace, Ron, The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University. https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_ud/about_ud.htm 

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National Technical Institute for the Deaf
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Rochester, NY 14623

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Numbers 1104229, 1501756, and 1902474.