What is Universal Design?
First coined by Ronald L. Mace in 1985, the term “universal design” refers to designing all products, buildings, and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. Universal design accommodates individual preferences and abilities; communicates necessary information effectively (regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities); and can be approached, reached, manipulated, and used irrespective of body size, posture, or mobility.
Universal design typically results in product features that benefit many users, not just people with disabilities. For example, today, sidewalk curb cuts are often used by kids on skateboards or bikes and parents with baby strollers. Similarly, a door that automatically opens when someone approaches it is more accessible to everyone, including small children, delivery personnel, and people using walkers or wheelchairs.
The Disability Act 2005 defines Universal Design as:
(a) means the design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood, and used—
(i) to the greatest practicable extent,
(ii) most independently and naturally possible,
(iii) in the broadest possible range of situations, and
(iv) without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices, or specialized solutions, by persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
(b) means, concerning electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services, or procedures may be used by any person.
7 Principles of Universal Design
1. Equitable Use.
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. It provides the same means of use for all users. It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users, provides privacy, security, and safety for all, and the design is appealing to all users.
An example of equitable use is a website that is designed for all users. Spokane Transit Authority (STA) created its website after consulting with several professionals and self-advocates in the disability community.
2. Flexibility in Use.
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. It accommodates right or left-handed access facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision and provides adaptability to the user’s pace.
An example of flexibility in use is Microsoft Word’s accommodation features. You can type or use voice-to-text. There are also translation features, a read-aloud option, and additional add-ons!
3. Simple and Intuitive Use.
The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or concentration level. It eliminates unnecessary complexity, 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 example that comes to mind for simple and intuitive use is a self-checkout kiosk. While grocery shopping with a former participant recently, I taught her how to use the self-checkout. After demonstrating how to scan the items, she quickly understood what she needed to do. She picked up an item, scanned the barcode, and waited for a beep. Once it beeped, she handed me the item to put into a grocery bag.
4. Perceptible Information.
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or sensory abilities. It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for the redundant presentation of essential information. It provides adequate contrast between necessary information and its surroundings and increases compatibility with various techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.
An example of perceptive information is closed captioning. Zoom recently announced that all users, whether they have a pro account or not, will now have the ability to use closed captioning for free!
5. Tolerance for Error.
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. It arranges elements to reduce risks and errors.
The idea of tolerance for error parallels task design. For example, a former participant of mine folded pizza boxes at a local pizzeria. Each box had to be folded along the creases, have a sheet of wax paper placed inside, and a coupon glued on top. To militate against mistakes, we folded a box, put a sheet inside, shut it, and stacked it. Once the stack got too high to reach the top, we switched to couponing the boxes. Designing the task eliminated the risk of missing a wax sheet or coupon.
6. Low Physical Effort.
The design allows for efficiency and comfort with minimum fatigue. It allows users to maintain a neutral body position, use reasonable operating forces, and minimize repetitive actions.
An example of low physical effort is an elevator. Elevators benefit not only people with disabilities but also parents with strollers, delivery workers, custodians, the list goes on and on!
7. Size and Space for Approach and Use.
Appropriate size and space are provided for access, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. It provides a clear line of sight to essential elements and makes reaching all components comfortable for any seated or standing user. It accommodates variations in hand and grip size and provides adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.
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