What is Universal Design?

An Excerpt Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Adaptive Environments Center ©.

Polly Welch, Associate Professor
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA

This document is the first chapter in the book, Strategies for Teaching Universal Design, Welch, P. Editor, (Adaptive Environments Center and MIG Communications, 1995) . It discusses what universal design is and is not and why the term was needed at all.

What is universal design? It is, simply, "an approach to creating environments and products that are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible." (1) The ambiguity of the term universal design, according to James Mueller, is its virtue because it provokes discussion. The implication that universal design applies to everyone is another virtue of the term. As Elizabeth Church points out, "universal design implies that 'it' could happen to me" as opposed to "special needs" that are always someone else's. (2) Ralph Caplan adds that "in a rational world you wouldn't have to use it, because that's what design itself would be." (3)

Although a recently coined term, the concept of universal design is not new. Architect Michael Bednar in 1977 noted that the functional capability of all people is usually enhanced when environmental barriers are removed and suggested that a new concept is needed that is "much broader and more universal" and "involves the environmental needs of all users." (4) The term accessible design was used in the early 1980s to describe the value of universal design—design for all people. (5) Over time, however, accessible and accessibility have become synonymous with making environments usable primarily by people with disabilities, losing the more inclusive connotation of making environments understandable to and usable by all people. An accessible building implies that a person using a wheelchair can get into the building, but the notion that the building is convenient to public transportation, has an easily located front door, and provides good directories for wayfinding is usually not part of the image of accessibility that comes to mind for designers. Those features, however, are the essence of a universal design approach.

Universal design is not a euphemism for accessibility. It is not a catchy phrase to make more palatable the requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. It is a term that re-establishes an important goal of good design—that it shall meet the needs of as many users as possible. Universal indicates a unanimity of practice and applicability to all cases without significant exception. (6) Universal design suggests solutions that are capable of being adjusted or modified to meet varied requirements. It is the inclusivity of universal design that makes it cost effective; universal design increases the number of people whose needs are being addressed and it encourages an integrative approach rather than multiple separate solutions.

The need for the concept of universal design emerged through two separate but related movements: the struggle by the disability community to erase the "we—they" dichotomy that allowed designers to marginalize the needs of people with disabilities and the pressure from groups within the design professions for democratization of values through a more pluralistic definition of good design.

Early advocacy and legal efforts by the disability community in the sixties and seventies to make existing public places physically accessible to people with disabilities resulted in the development of numerous architectural features to promote "handicap accessibility"--the ramp, the lift, the larger toilet stall, and the international symbol with its wheelchair user. These devices have provided much needed access and provided potent symbols of separateness as well. Lusher and Mace point out that the hard-won laws to increase educational, employment, housing, and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities "were inadequate as educational media and they reinforced the outdated, narrow view of human environmental needs by requiring a few special features for what was perceived as a few people." (7)

The term universal design was invented in response to a conceptual dilemma that has plagued advocates of barrier-free environments since the passage of the first ANSI standards. How do you overcome pervasive attitudinal barriers when physical barriers can be neatly addressed with a few code-compliance measures? The circular dilemma confounded the disability community's effort to win broad access. The codes, balancing cost and change, established minimum standards, which provided the most basic access, but did little to encourage designers and building owners to consider the benefits of making buildings more accessible to a broad array of users. Some building owners even wondered why they should make their buildings accessible if people with disabilities never used their buildings, overlooking the paradoxical nature of their question.

The second movement, with roots in the same de cades, is the loose association of designers and scientists interested in how the built environment meets the needs of its users. Early efforts focused on the functional fit of environments and products to people, resulting in anthropocentric and human-factors research. Unfortunately, much of the data that reached designers was based on the average, young, able-bodied male. Other groups pressed for users to have a greater voice in the design of buildings and open space through greater participation in decision-making and through better representation of the diversity of users. (8) Designers and researchers who subscribe to these values have sometimes inadvertently perpetuated the segregation of users by giving specific constituencies, like the elderly, special attention. The study of "special populations" has generated important information for designers on how the environment can meet specific needs, but special has become another word for separate. (9)

The inherent limitations of design standards, in general, have produced yet another reason for the concept of universal design. Designers, manufacturers, and building officials have pressed for clear, simple specification of solutions for achieving accessibility. People with disabilities found that the reduction of complex variables to single solutions excluded many whose disabilities fell outside the norm. Although extensive empirical research (10) has examined more closely the specifics of how a representative range of people with disabilities access and interact with the environment, an alternative to the prevailing paradigms of minimum standard and exceptions to the norm has not emerged. Designers have historically tended to interpret minimum standards as maximums, particularly when solutions beyond the minimum might result in higher costs. The codes have also reinforced the notion that design for people with disabilities can be achieved by modification to the norm. Not only does this result in design that segregates, it is also a costly solution. (11)

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 heralded the opportunity for a paradigm shift. Extending the design discussion beyond the realm of building codes and into the realm of civil rights took the design and building industries by surprise. By framing the issue of access as part of the American promise for equal opportunity, the focus was shifted from the purely pragmatic decision of where to place the wheelchair lift to who uses the built environment and how to provide them with greater opportunities to access places and programs. The broadened perspective created a sense of uncertainty for design decision-makers. Reassurance came in the form of standards that had some resemblance to the earlier code requirements but the new requirements also provided an opportunity for greater creativity and a challenge for designers to think beyond the minimum requirements by introducing the concept of equivalent facilitation. To achieve an appropriate equivalent design solution through alternate means requires that designers and building owners must understand the needs of users well enough to make informed judgments and to effectively use the input of users with disabilities.

The positive outcome of the Americans with Disabilities Act is increased consciousness among designers, building owners, and manufacturers about the rights of people with a range of disabilities and more accessible public and private places. The new level of consciousness establishes a teachable moment. By heightening the awareness of designers to a previously marginalized group of users, inclusive design values are more likely to be included in design discourse. The disappointment to some veterans of barrier-free design efforts is the recodification of user needs. People are disabled by situations and attitudes: a designer can meet the letter of the law, follow the details of the standards, and still not create an enabling environment. The possibilities for replacing standards with another paradigm for responsible design may lie in the elaboration of universal design values.

Universal design is also lifespan design. All of us benefit from accessible places and products at many stages in the passage from childhood to old age. The case for universal design is frequently made by citing national census data and projections. In 1990, 48.9 million Americans had some type of disability and 31 million, one in every eight Americans, were 65 or older; by 2030 it is predicted that one in five Americans will be over 65. While statistics by themselves can be informative, Lusher and Mace contend that arguing the numbers game misses the point. Leon Pastalan concurs, pointing out that by focusing instead on the "context of normal expectations of the human condition, trying to justify the importance of each vulnerable population group becomes unnecessary." (12) Michel Philibert, French philosopher and gerontologist, has proposed that we are at the dawn of a new understanding where aging is defined as a pattern of change throughout the entire lifespan. (13) So designing for children, older people and people with disabilities is not thinking about separate groups of users but a spectrum of human-environment interaction.


1. Mace, R., G. Hardie, and J. Plaice (1991). "Accessible Environments: Toward Universal Design." In Design Interventions: Toward A More Humane Architecture, edited by Preiser, Vischer, and White, Pp.156. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

2. Mueller's and Church's comments were made at the UDEP Conference, Boston, November 1994.

3. Caplan, Ralph. "Disabled By Design." Interior Design, August 1992.

4. Bednar, Michael (1977). Barrier Free Environments. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Dowden, Hutchinson, and Ross.

5. Ostroff, Elaine and Daniel Iacofano (1982). Teaching Design For All People: The State of the Art. Boston: Adaptive Environments Center.

6. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1981).

7. Lusher, Ruth Hall and Ronald Mace (1989). "Design for Physical and Mental Disabilities." In Encyclopedia of Architecture: Design Engineering and Construction, edited by Wilkes and Packard, Pp.755. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

8. Environmental Design Research Association.

9. Kailes, June Isaacson (1984). Language is More Than a Trivial Concern.

10. Steinfeld et al. (1979). Two-year project at Syracuse University, the findings and conclusions of which formed the basis for the revisions to ANSI A117.1 described in "Developing Standards for Accessibility" in Ref. 4.

11. Ref. 7, Pp.754.

12. Mace, Ronald (1988). Universal Design: Housing for the Lifespan of All People. Washington, D4C.: U4S4 Department of Housing and Urban Development, P.4.

13. Byerts, Thomas (1977). "Prologue." Journal of Architectural Education Pp.31, no. 1.