Universal design is an approach to design that works to ensure products and buildings can be used by virtually everyone, regardless of their level of ability or disability. The term “universal design” was coined by the late Ronald L. Mace, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. “The universal design concept increases the supply of usable housing by including universal features in as many houses as possible,” he said, “and allows people to remain in their homes as long as they like.”
Some examples of “universal design” include: Installing standard electrical receptacles higher than usual above the floor so they are in easy reach of everyone; Selecting wider doors, Making flat entrances, Installing handles for doors and drawers that require no gripping or twisting to operate — such as louver or loop handles; storage spaces within reach of both short and tall people.
“As baby boomers age, they’re thinking more about the joys of a stairless home,” according to a story in the June 28, 1999 issue of U.S. News and World Report (“Love those designer grab bars,” p. 82). “Universal design,” says the U.S. News article, “sprang from the movement to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities. The late Ron Mace, who founded the Center for Universal Design in Raleigh, NC, coined the term in the 1980s after observing that features designed for folks with disabilities often benefit everyone — like bikers and stoller pushers who love sloped curbs made for wheelchair users.” (for more on this, read The Electronic Curb Cut.)
Universal design means simply designing all products, buildings and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. Universal design is not a design style, but an orientation to design, based on the following premises:
- Disability is not a special condition of a few;
- It is ordinary and effects most of us for some part of our lives;
- If a design works well for people with disabilities, it works better for everyone;
- Usability and aesthetics are mutually compatible.
- Adaptive Environments’ statement on South Boston Waterfront redevelopment
The question centers on ‘normality’. “What is the normal way to be mobile over a distance of a mile?” asks Professor David Pfeiffer of the University of Hawaii. “Is it to walk, drive one’s own car, take a taxicab, ride a bicycle, use a wheelchair, roller skate, or use a skate board, or some other means? What is the normal way to earn a living?” Most people will experience some form of disability, either permanent or temporary, over the course of their lives. Given this reality, if disability were more commonly recognized and expected in the way that we design our environments or our systems, it would not seem so abnormal.
It took me several years of struggling with the heavy door to my building, sometimes having to wait until a person stronger came along, to realize that the door was an accessibility problem, not only for me, but for others as well. And I did not notice, until one of my students pointed it out, that the lack of signs that could be read from a distance at my university forced people with mobility impairments to expend a lot of energy unnecessarily, searching for rooms and offices. Although I have encountered this difficulty myself on days when walking was exhausting to me, I interpreted it, automatically, as a problem arising from my illness (as I did with the door), rather than as a problem arising from the built environment having been created for too narrow a range of people and situations.
Susan Wendell, author of The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical
Reflections on Disability (Routledge), 1996
It is a sensible and economical way to reconcile the artistic integrity of a design with human needs in the environment. Solutions which result in no additional cost and no noticeable change in appearance can come about from knowledge about people, simple planning, and careful selection of conventional products.
Ronald Mace, Graeme Hardie, Jaine Place
Accessible Environments: Toward Universal Design, 1991