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Universal design

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Universal design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to people, regardless of ageism, disability or other factors. It emerged as a rights-based, anti-discrimination measure, which seeks to create design for all abilities. Evaluating material and structures that can be utilized by all.[1] It addresses common barriers to participation by creating things that can be used by the maximum number of people possible.[2] When disabling mechanisms are to be replaced with mechanisms for inclusion, different kinds of knowledge are relevant for different purposes. As a practical strategy for inclusion, Universal Design involves dilemmas and often difficult priorities.”[1] Curb cuts or sidewalk ramps, which are essential for people in wheelchairs but also used by all, are a common example of universal design.

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.[3] However, due to some people having unusual or conflicting access needs, such as a person with low vision needing bright light and a person with photophobia needing dim light, universal design does not address absolutely every need for every person in every situation.[2]

Universal design emerged from slightly 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. Several different fields, such as engineering, architecture, and medicine collaborate in order to effectively create accessible environments that can lend to inclusion for a variety of disabilities.[4] It can change the socio-material relationships people have with spaces and environments and create positive experiences for all kinds of abilities. Which allows for meaningful participation across multiple demographics experiencing disability.[5]

However, it was the work of Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled (1963), who really pioneered the concept of free access for people with disabilities. His most significant achievement was the creation of the dropped curb – now a standard feature of the built environment.



The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University expounded the following principles:[6]

  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 above is succinctly defined and contains a few brief guidelines[6] that can be applied to design processes in any realm: physical or digital.

These principles are broader than those of accessible design and barrier-free design.



In 2012, the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access[7] at the University at Buffalo expanded the definition of the principles of universal design to include social participation and health and wellness. Rooted in evidence based design, the 8 goals of universal design were also developed.[8]

  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 to human performance: anthropometry, biomechanics, perception, cognition. Wellness bridges human performance and social participation. The last three goals addresses social participation outcomes. The definition and the goals are expanded upon in the textbook "Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments."[9]



Spaces and buildings that use universal design often comply with broad areas of accessibility. On the other hand, homes and personal spaces comply with the specific disability or capabilities of a resident.[10] "Gesture movements" are activities that are normally autonomously accomplished on a daily basis.[10] These gesture movements are the foundation for what elements need to be incorporated into a design in order to achieve a space that lends itself to a livable and comfortable environment for somebody with a disability.[10] A study conducted in 2015 revealed that the words homeowners use to describe conditions of comfort and safety in their own home overlaps with words that are commonly used in discussions regarding accessibility, utility and universal design.[10] These concepts include temperature, lighting, social atmosphere, and other sensory qualities of an environment.[10]

Color-contrast dishware with steep sides that assists those with visual or dexterity problems are an example of universal design. Anyone can use the dishes, and more people can use this than a flat plate.[citation needed]

There are also cabinets with pull-out shelves, kitchen counters at several heights to accommodate different tasks and postures. In 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.[11]

  • 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 per ASTM 2047
  • 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
  • Cash[12]
  • 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

Design standards


In 1960, specifications for barrier-free design were published. It was a compendium of over 11 years of disability ergonomic research. In 1961, the specifications became the first Barrier Free Design standard called the American National Standard, A1171.1 was published. It was the first standard to present the criteria for designing facilities and programs for the use of disabled individuals. The research started in 1949 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and continues to this day. The principal investigator is Dr. Timothy Nugent (his name is listed in the front of the 1961, 1971, 1980 standard). In 1949 Dr. Nugent also started the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. This ANSI A117.1 standard was adopted by the US federal government General Services Administration under 35 FR 4814 - 3/20/70, 39 FR 23214 - 6/27/74, 43 FR 16478 ABA- 4/19/78, 44 FR 39393 7/6/79, 46 FR 39436 8/3/81, in 1984 for UFAS and then in 1990 for ADA. The archived research documents are at the International Code Council (ICC) - ANSI A117.1 division. Dr. Nugent made presentations around the globe in the late 1950s and 1960s presenting the concept of independent functional participation for individuals with disabilities through program options and architectural design.

Another comprehensive publication by the Royal Institute of British Architects published three editions 1963, 1967, 1976 and 1997 of Designing for the Disabled by Selwyn Goldsmith UK. These publications contain valuable empirical data and studies of individuals with disabilities. Both standards are excellent resources for the designer and builder.

Disability ergonomics should be taught to designers, engineers, non-profits executives to further the understanding of what makes an environment wholly tenable and functional for individuals with disabilities.

In October 2003, representatives from China, Japan, and South Korea met in Beijing and agreed to set up a committee to define common design standards for a wide range of products and services that are easy to understand and use. Their goal is to publish a standard in 2004 which covers, among other areas, standards on containers and wrappings of household goods (based on a proposal from experts in Japan), and standardization of signs for public facilities, a subject which was of particular interest to China as it prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The International Organization for Standardization, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization, and the International Electrotechnical Commission have developed:

  • CEN/CENELEC Guide 6 – Guidelines for standards developers to address the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities (Identical to ISO/IEC Guide 71, but free for download)
  • ISO 21542:2021 [13] – Building construction — Accessibility and usability of the built environment (available in English and French)
  • ISO 20282-1:2006 [14] – Ease of operation of everyday products — Part 1: Context of use and user characteristics
  • ISO/TS 20282-2:2013 [15] – Usability of consumer products and products for public use — Part 2: Summative test method, published 1 August 2013.

Design for All


The term Design for All (DfA) is used to describe a design philosophy targeting the use of products, services and systems by as many people as possible without the need for adaptation. "Design for All is design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality" (EIDD Stockholm Declaration, 2004). According to the European Commission, it "encourages manufacturers and service providers to produce new technologies for everyone: technologies that are suitable for the elderly and people with disabilities, as much as the teenage techno wizard."[16] The origin of Design for All[17] lies in the field of barrier-free accessibility for people with disabilities and the broader notion of universal design.



Design for All has been highlighted in Europe by the European Commission in seeking a more user-friendly society in Europe.[16] Design for All is about ensuring that environments, products, services and interfaces work for people of all ages and abilities in different situations and under various circumstances.

Design for All has become a mainstream issue because of the aging of the population and its increasingly multi-ethnic composition. It follows a market approach and can reach out to a broader market. Easy-to-use, accessible, affordable products and services improve the quality of life of all citizens. Design for All permits access to the built environment, access to services and user-friendly products which are not just a quality factor but a necessity for many aging or disabled persons. Including Design for All early in the design process is more cost-effective than making alterations after solutions are already in the market. This is best achieved by identifying and involving users ("stakeholders") in the decision-making processes that lead to drawing up the design brief and educating public and private sector decision-makers about the benefits to be gained from making coherent use of Design (for All) in a wide range of socio-economic situations.



The following examples of Designs for All were presented in the book Diseños para todos/Designs for All published in 2008 by Optimastudio with the support of Spain's Ministry of Education, Social Affairs and Sports (IMSERSO) and CEAPAT:[18]

Other useful items for those with mobility limitations:

  • Washlet
  • Wireless remote controlled power sockets
  • Wireless remote controlled window shades

In information and communication technology (ICT)


Design for All criteria are aimed at ensuring that everyone can participate in the Information society. The European Union refers to this under the terms eInclusion and eAccessibility. A three-way approach is proposed: goods which can be accessed by nearly all potential users without modification or, failing that, products being easy to adapt according to different needs, or using standardized interfaces that can be accessed simply by using assistive technology. To this end, manufacturers and service providers, especially, but not exclusively, in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), produce new technologies, products, services and applications for everyone.[16]

European organizational networks


In Europe, people have joined in networks to promote and develop Design for All:

  • The European Design for All eAccessibility Network (EDeAN)[20] was launched under the lead of the European Commission and the European Member States in 2002. It fosters Design for All for eInclusion, that is, creating an information society for all. It has national contact centres (NCCs) in almost all EU countries and more than 160 network members in national networks.
  • EIDD - Design for All Europe is a NGO and a 100% self-financed European organization that covers the entire area of theory and practice of Design for All, from the built environment and tangible products to communication, service and system design. Originally set up in 1993 as the European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD), to enhance the quality of life through Design for All, it changed its name in 2006 to bring it into line with its core business. EIDD - Design for All Europe disseminates the application of Design for All to business and administration communities previously unaware of its benefits and currently (2016) has 31 member organizations in 20 European countries.[21]
  • EuCAN - The European Concept for Accessibility Network started in 1984 as an open network of experts and advocates from all over Europe in order to promote and support the Design for All approach.[22] The coordination work of EuCAN and the functioning of the network are mainly voluntary work. In 1999 the Luxembourg Disability Information and Meeting Centre (better known by its acronym “Info-Handicap”) took over the coordination of the steering group, together with the implicit responsibility for the follow-up of the European Concept for Accessibility (ECA). The EuCAN publications - like ECA - aim to provide practical guidance. They are neither academic nor policy documents.

The "barrier-free" concept


Barrier-free (バリアフリー, bariafurii) building modification consists of modifying buildings or facilities so that they can be used by people who are disabled or have physical impairments. The term is used primarily in Japan and other non-English speaking countries (e.g. German: Barrierefreiheit; Finnish: esteettömyys), while in English-speaking countries, terms such as "accessibility" and "accessible" dominate in everyday use. An example of barrier-free design would be installing a ramp for wheelchair users alongside steps. In the late 1990s, any element which could make the use of the environment inconvenient was considered a barrier[clarification needed], for example poor public street lighting.[23] In the case of new buildings, however, the idea of barrier-free modification has largely been superseded by the concept of universal design, which seeks to design things from the outset to support easy access.

Freeing a building of barriers means:

  • Recognizing the features that could form barriers for some people,
  • Thinking inclusively about the whole range of impairment and disability,
  • Reviewing everything - from structure to smallest detail,
  • Seeking feedback from users and learning from mistakes.

Barrier-free is also a term that applies to accessibility in situations where legal codes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 applies. The process of adapting barrier-free public policies started when the Veterans Administration and US President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped noticed a large amount of US citizens coming back from the Vietnam War injured and unable to navigate public spaces.[10]The ADA is a law focusing on all building aspects, products and design that is based on the concept of respecting human rights.[23] It doesn't contain design specifications directly.

An example of a country that has sought to implement barrier-free accessibility in housing estates is Singapore. Within five years, all public housing estates in the country, all 7,800 blocks of apartments, have benefited from the program.[24]

National legislation

  • Ontario, Canada "Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005". 15 December 2009. Archived from the original on 14 April 2021. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  • United States of America. "Universal Design and Accessibility". Section508.gov. General Services Administration. March 2022. Archived from the original on 29 June 2022. Retrieved 30 June 2022.
  • Mexico City, Mexico. "Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo's Plan for Government."[36]
    • Document describing 12 points of intention for the government, the following are directly related to accessibility in Mexico City[36]
      • 6. Public Spaces [36]
      • 7. Mobility[36]
      • 9. Human rights and equality[36]
      • 10. Equality and inclusion[36]
  • Mexico City, Mexico. "Plaza Pública." Reconstruction Commission.
    • Following the 2017 earthquake that destroyed a lot of Mexico City, this policy was released that involved the public in the rebuilding process, creating a good platform for requesting accessibility and universal design.[36]
    • A 19 point plan describing the rights of elderly citizens, where the following are directly related to accessibility[36]
      • 11. Right to live free from discrimination and violence[36]
      • 19. Right to a sustainable city environment that provides mobility and quality of life[36]

Funding agencies


The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC)[37] on universal design in the Built Environment funded by what is now the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research completed its activities on September 29, 2021.[38] Twenty RERCs are currently funded.[39] The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University at Buffalo is a current recipient.[7]

Common Shortcomings


Aswan Case Study


One study conducted in Aswan, Egypt published in the Journal of Engineering and Applied Science aimed to explore the accessibility in three administrative buildings in the area.[40] They were looking for universal design in entrances and exits, circulation of traffic within the building, and wayfinding within the building's services.[40] They decided to focus their case study on administrative buildings in order to exemplify universal design that granted access for all citizens to all locations.[40] Among the buildings, there were some shared issues.

The Local Unit of Aswan City


In here, the researchers found that vertical movement was difficult for disabled patrons, given that there were no elevators.[40] There was also no dropped curb, no Braille system, and the handles of doors were difficult to open, and there were no sensory indicators such as sounds or visual signs.[40]

Aswan University


The entrances of this building, like many others, did not include any textures indicating where ramps or stairs are.[40] In the case of this building, there was an elevator, but it was not large enough to turn a wheelchair in.[40] Although the elevator wasn't a successful adaptation of universal design, the building did include double doors and wider halls, which make the location easier to navigate in a wheelchair.[40]

National Organization for Social Insurance


This case highlights the importance if demographics when considering needs for universal design. Over 60% of the citizens who use this building on a daily basis are elderly, but there aren't accommodations that are helpful to their capabilities.[40] Along with the lack of tactile features to guide the visually impaired, the space within the building is very congested, especially for one who may not have full physical capabilities and must use a wheelchair.[40] The circulation suffers as a result, as well as the wayfinding in the structure.[40]

Latin America




Although there have been attempts to create more accessible public and outdoor spaces, the restorations made have ultimately failed to meet the needs of the disabled and elderly.[36]



See also



  2. ^ a b "How to deal with competing access needs". Independence Australia. 2020-08-03. Retrieved 2022-10-14.
  3. ^ "Ronald L. Mace". College of Design. The Center for Universal Design. Raleigh: NC State University. 2008. Archived from the original (Remembrance) on October 4, 2017. Retrieved June 16, 2022. The Center for Universal Design is currently not active due to funding challenges.
  4. ^ Di Bucchianico, Giuseppe; Kercher, Pete F., eds. (2018). Advances in design for inclusion: proceedings of the AHFE 2017 International Conference on Design for Inclusion, July 17-21, 2017, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, California, USA. Advances in intelligent systems and computing. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-60597-5.
  5. ^ Barton, Len (1996), "Sociology and disability: some emerging issues", Disability and Society, Routledge, doi:10.4324/9781315841984-2, ISBN 978-1-315-84198-4, retrieved 2024-04-11
  6. ^ a b "The Principles of Universal Design Version 2.0". Design.ncsu.edu. 1997-04-01. Retrieved 2014-12-14.
  7. ^ a b "Who we are? What is universal design?". Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. School of Architecture and Planning: University at Buffalo. 2020. Archived from the original on 2022-03-08. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  8. ^ "The Goals of Universal Design". Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. April 10, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2017.
  9. ^ Steinfeld, Edward; Maisel, Jordana, eds. (April 10, 2012). Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments. Hoboken: Wiley. pp. 408 pages. ISBN 9781118168455. OCLC 787849904.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Persson, Hans; Åhman, Henrik; Yngling, Alexander Arvei; Gulliksen, Jan (November 2015). "Universal design, inclusive design, accessible design, design for all: different concepts—one goal? On the concept of accessibility—historical, methodological and philosophical aspects". Universal Access in the Information Society. 14 (4): 505–526. doi:10.1007/s10209-014-0358-z. ISSN 1615-5289. S2CID 7411507.
  11. ^ Nasar, Jack L; Evans-Cowley, Jennifer, eds. (2007). Universal design and visitability : from accessability to zoning. Columbus OH. p. 53. ISBN 978-1427618955. OCLC 173818638.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  12. ^ "Cash Is Universal". CashEssentials.
  13. ^ "ISO 21542:2021". ISO. June 16, 2021.
  14. ^ "ISO 20282-1:2006". ISO. Archived from the original on May 26, 2005.
  15. ^ Usability of consumer products and products for public use -- Part 2: Summative test method accessed 14 November 2016
  16. ^ a b c European Commission: Design for All (DfA).
  17. ^ "The UK Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  18. ^ Feo, Roberto & Hurtado, Rosario & Optimastudio Diseños para Todos/Designs for All Madrid 2008 ISBN 978-84-691-3870-0 Downloadable free version of Designs for All
  19. ^ "Q-Drums". Qdrum.co.za. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  20. ^ "None". Archived from the original on December 11, 2003.
  21. ^ "Design for All Europe". EIDD - DfA Europe. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  22. ^ "European concept for accessibility". www.eca.lu. Archived from the original on 1 April 2022. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  23. ^ a b Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 4.
  24. ^ "Making HDB Towns User Friendly". wordpress.com. Singapore. 19 November 2012. Archived from the original on 29 November 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  25. ^ "Ley Chile - Ley 20422 - Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional". www.bcn.cl. Retrieved 3 November 2023.
  26. ^ "Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - United States Access Board". www.access-board.gov. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h "Guide to Disability Rights Laws". ADA.gov. 2023-12-01. Retrieved 2023-12-02.
  28. ^ "Disability Discrimination Act 1992". Austlii.edu.au. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  29. ^ "Disability and the Equality Act 2010". Direct.gov.uk. 2013-05-30. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  30. ^ "DISABILITY ACT 2005". Irishstatutebook.ie. 2005-07-08. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  31. ^ "Loi n°2005-102 du 11 février 2005 pour l'égalité des droits et des chances, la participation et la citoyenneté des personnes handicapées" (in French). Legifrance.gouv.fr. Retrieved 2013-07-26.
  32. ^ "(Translated)장애인차별금지 및 권리구제 등에 관한 법률(장애인 차별 금지법) Act on the Prohibition of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, Remedy Against Infringement of Their Rights, etc".
  33. ^ "Act relating to a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability (the Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act)" (PDF). app.uio.no. Retrieved 3 November 2023.
  34. ^ "THE LAW ON PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES". www.drdvietnam.org. Archived from the original on 2014-02-01. Retrieved 2023-11-03.
  35. ^ "Accessible Canada Act". laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. 2019-07-11. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  36. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Garcia-Checua, Eva (2022). Advancing urban Rights: Equality and Diversity in the City. Black Rose Books.
  37. ^ Reinkensmeyer, David J.; Blackstone, Sarah; Bodine, Cathy; Brabyn, John; Brienza, David; Caves, Kevin; DeRuyter, Frank (December 2017). "How a diverse research ecosystem has generated new rehabilitation technologies: Review of NIDILRR's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers". Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. 14 (1). BIoMed Central: 109. doi:10.1186/s12984-017-0321-3. ISSN 1743-0003. OCLC 909885328. PMC 5674748. PMID 29110728. S2CID 19368471.
  38. ^ "RERC-UD 2015-2020". Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. School of Architecture and Planning: University at Buffalo. 2020. Archived from the original on 2021-04-14.
  39. ^ "United States: Grant Helps Carnegie Mellon, University at Buffalo Improve Transit Access". Mena Report. Al Bawaba. 11 December 2018. OCLC 926165117. Gale A565298465. Found through Gale Academic OneFile
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Khalil, M. E.; Mohamed, N. A.; Morghany, E. A. (December 2021). "Towards inclusion and diversity in the light of Universal Design: three administrative buildings in Aswan city as case studies". Journal of Engineering and Applied Science. 68 (1). doi:10.1186/s44147-021-00020-0. ISSN 1110-1903.