History of Universal Design


A worldwide movement promoting design as a support for independence and participation has evolved in response to an expanding demographic and social reality: more people living with a wide array of disabilities and chronic health conditions than ever before and the longest lifespans in history. Universal Design is the design of products, environments, and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. The concept is also called inclusive design, design-for-all, lifespan design or human-centered design. The message is the same: if it works well for people across the spectrum of functional ability, it works better for everyone.

Evolving Perspectives & Legal Requirements for Accessible Design

The evolution toward Universal Design began in the 1950s with a new attention to design for people with disabilities. In Europe, Japan, and the United States, barrier-free design developed to remove obstacles in the built environment for people with physical disabilities. It followed the companion social policy of moving people with disabilities from institutional settings to the community. Barrier-free design still tended to be segregated and special, pertinent to people with serious physical limitations, primarily mobility impairments.

By the 1970s, parts of Europe and the United States were beginning to move beyond the emphasis on special solutions tailored to individuals and toward the idea of normalization and integration. Increasingly, the terminology of choice was accessible design. In the United States, the disability rights movement taking shape in the mid-70s built upon the vision of civil rights articulated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act for racial minorities. People speaking for themselves argued for equality of opportunity and against paternalism and care-taking. For the first time, design was recognized as a condition for achieving civil rights.

The legal standards used the term accessible design. Beginning with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the United States initially confined parties responsible for accessible design to those entities that received federal financial assistance.

The United States, led by the disability community, established the most expansive legal requirements with the passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. It substantially exceeded the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and derived most of its language directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with additional requirements for accessible design. It substantially expanded the scope of responsible parties to include both public and private entities regardless of whether they received federal funds. The Act's Title II regulation covers "public entities" including any state or local government and any of its departments, agencies, or other instrumentalities. All activities, services, and programs of public entities are covered, including activities of state legislatures and courts, schools, town meetings, police and fire departments, motor vehicle licensing, and employment.

Even more dramatically, the ADA defined responsibilities of private entities and used the term "place of public accommodation' in its Title III. A public accommodation is a private entity that owns, operates, leases, or leases to, a place of public accommodation. Places of public accommodation include a wide range of entities, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors" offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers. Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from the ADA's title III requirements for public accommodations.

The ADA also established protections for people with disabilities in the workplace. It required making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to, and usable by, an individual with a disability.

The ADA does not cover private housing. However, the Fair Housing Act of 1988 does include specific accessibility requirements to ensure non-discrimination by people with disabilities in multi-family housing. Accessible design requirements are primarily focused on design that meets the needs of wheelchair users. The Fair Housing Act defines discrimination in housing against persons with disabilities to include a failure "to design and construct" certain new multi-family dwellings so that they are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

The Fair Housing Act requires all newly constructed multi-family dwellings of four or more units intended for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, to have certain features: an accessible entrance on an accessible route, accessible common and public use areas, doors sufficiently wide to accommodate wheelchairs, accessible routes into and through each dwelling, light switches, electrical outlets, and thermostats in accessible location, reinforcements in bathroom walls to accommodate grab bar installations, and usable kitchens and bathrooms configured so that a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.

In the US and around the world, housing has been a primary emphasis of universal design advocacy, research and implementation.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress affirmed the significance of the design of communication and information technology as a means to equality and opportunity for people with disabilities when it amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

"The new standards provide technical criteria specific to various types of technologies and performance-based requirements, which focus on the functional capabilities of covered technologies. Specific criteria cover software applications and operating systems; web-based information or applications; telecommunications functions; video or multi-media products; self contained, closed products such as information kiosks and transaction machines, and computers. Also covered is compatibility with adaptive equipment people with disabilities commonly use for information and communication access."
[U.S. Access Board]

The requirements applied specifically to the federal government though some entities in the public and private sector have adopted the requirements of Section 508 as policy. In deference to the presumption that technology could be characterized by constant innovation, the 508 standards for the first time used performance measures instead of fixed requirements. In the initial performance measures, a primary concern was to create ICT products that would be usable by persons who were blind and low-vision, especially those that used assistive technology.

Universal Design in information and communication technology has been another leading area of focus for the international movement. As is true in other areas of design, Universal Design in ICT has been more expansive than the legal requirements for accessibility both in terms of considering a broader spectrum of users and promoting market opportunity and advantage rather than focusing on meeting minimum requirements.

Limits of Legally Mandated Accessibility & Universal Design

Legally mandated requirements for accessible design, framed within a civil rights context, provide a vital basis for autonomy and opportunity. Legal mandates are logical choices in societies primarily governed by the rule of law. Effectiveness is contingent on establishing an infrastructure of information and enforcement in order to ensure meaningful compliance. Inevitably, the legal mandates establish a set of minimums, a floor.

Laws are an invaluable beginning but they are inherently limited. Legal design requirements for accessibility tend to focus on the needs of people with mobility limitations, especially wheelchair users, with some attention to people with vision limitations. There are benefits in those design features for many other people but they miss the potential of design to facilitate independence, participation or well-being by a broader spectrum including people with most disabilities related to the brain or to environmental health.

Design details can substantially reduce the impact of the spectrum of limitations common to aging but legally required accessibility contributes minimally to that potential. Legal mandates and minimum requirements are almost guaranteed to result in "just tell me what I have to do" attitudes by covered parties that miss the potential and power of design as a social art that shapes everyone's daily experience and sense of self.

Even in countries such as the United States, with the broadest set of legal mandates, most private homes and all consumer products, except those covered under Section 508, are excluded. In order to make design as potent a tool of social equity as possible, it is important to be clear about the benefits and limits of legal mandates for accessibility. The task of overcoming the barriers of design can evolve to a vision of design as a facilitator of human opportunity only if it is reframed in design education and in practice, in the advocacy of the people most impacted by its potential and embedded in public and development policy.

The Evolving Vision

For the first time, in the 1970s, an American architect, Michael Bednar, introduced the idea that everyone's functional capacity is enhanced when environmental barriers are removed. He suggested that a new concept beyond accessibility was needed that would be broader and more "universal."

A number of trends converged in the 1980s. People with disabilities had organized themselves in many nations to be appropriately termed the "disability community" and able to articulate shared perspectives. They were increasingly concerned about an evolving dichotomy of "us" and "them" that rested on false assumptions about disability being a rare and static condition. They noted the unintended consequence that laws governing accessible design had reduced design to a set of minimum requirements too often resulting in designs that were accessible but felt separate and unequal. The laws offered invaluable protections but had the unintended consequence of diminishing attention to the creative potential of design to enhance everyone's experience through design that anticipated human diversity and integrated solutions seamlessly.

In 1987, a group of Irish designers succeeded in getting a resolution passed at the World Design Congress that designers everywhere should factor disability and aging into their work.

In the U.S., Ron Mace, an architect who had polio as a child and used a wheelchair and a ventilator, started using the term Universal Design and figuring out how to define it in relation to accessible design. He made the case that Universal Design is "not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible."

Ron, who died suddenly in 1998, recognized that the term universal was not ideal. It could be interpreted to promise an impossible standard. No matter how committed the designer and how attentive to anticipating all users, there would always be a small number of people for whom an individual design just wouldn't work. More accurately, Universal Design is an orientation to design in which designers strive to incorporate features that make each design more universally usable. Universal Design is broad and not tailored to the individual. Universal Design can improve the usability for places and things for people who need assistive technology by creating an interface that works seamlessly with the individualized solutions.

Interest in the concepts of Universal Design grew in the 1990s. There is little debate that the most enthusiastic initial discipline within design was industrial design - a field of design almost completely excluded from legal requirements for accessible design. Industrial designers assume the validity of focusing on the needs and preferences of users and are more attuned to market opportunity than other designers. Unlike the client-driven world of the architect or interior designer, the industrial designer must appeal to the end user. The changed demographic of ever-increasing user diversity established a clear, commonsense case for Universal Design.