Intertwine Alliance partner Access Recreation is a local expert and advocate for Universal Design, which goes beyond Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility to consider the needs and abilities of all users. The AccessTrails project and its website, developed by Access Recreation through a Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grant, is an example of Universal Design in the form of information sharing. Following the Guidelines for Providing Trail Information to People with Disabilities that we created, this website provides information on parks and trails so that people of all abilities can know whether a trail meets their needs or desired experience.
One of our goals is to help partners of The Intertwine Alliance find easy, everyday ways to apply Universal Design to their trails, facilities, signage, websites and more. Our guidelines and tools are a resource to help you reach your goals of equity and inclusion.
Universal Design emerged from earlier barrier-free concepts, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive and assistive technology, but also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations. Universal Design may be gaining increased attention by planners and designers, but it is still applied only selectively and for narrowly-framed purposes. It is often confused with the concept of accessible design.
Although the philosophies of accessibility and Universal Design are quite similar — inclusion, full participation and social equity — Universal Design extends beyond the limitations of accessibility to include all people and creates that inclusion by promoting integrated and mainstream products, environmental features and services, without a need for adaptation or specialized design.
Accessibility efforts, and the fundamental values of the disability rights movement, in large part form the foundation on which Universal Design concepts were built. The two most significant federal laws requiring accessibility are the Americans with Disabilities Act, with its associated ADA Standards for Accessible Design, and the Fair Housing Amendments Act. While the current laws have created marked improvements in the accessibility of the built environment, they do not meet the needs of all. When the design process is limited to complying with minimal accessibility requirements, it marginalizes people who cannot take advantage of those features. To include all of society requires keeping Universal Design practices in mind throughout the creative process.
Functional design is primarily concerned with how well an object works, without regard to appearance. Aesthetic design gives minimal concern to functional needs or to the requirements of the potential user; these products may look great but be difficult or impossible to use.
Most objects, traditionally, have been created by thinking about functional and aesthetic concerns only, as described above. But four other design methodologies have emerged that are relatively new and leading up to Universal Design.
Adaptable design takes existing products and modifies them to be usable by people with disabilities. There are two problems with this design methodology. First, in most cases the resultant product is ugly; second, there is a stigma of non-normality attached to it.
Transgenerational design considers all generations of users, from the young to the elderly. This is best symbolized by the inclusion of “children’s guidelines” in the updated ADA Standards for Accessible Design of 2010.
Accessible design is often based on the need to conform to government regulations that require accessibility to a wide range of facilities and activities. There may be separate features for disabled and non-disabled users. Over time the regulations have become so intricate and complex that designers often are content just to be “code compliant,” let alone to see this as an opportunity for creative design.
Universal Design attempts to meet the needs of all people, and includes those of all ages, physical abilities, sensory abilities and cognitive skills. Universal design addresses all types of people in the design process. Abilities are emphasized and disabilities are deemphasized. A single solution instead of multiple ones is the goal. Human characteristics considered in Universal Design may include: age, gender, stature, race/ethnicity, culture, native language and learning preference.
Making things easier to hold, manipulate, see, hear and understand makes them better for everyone. Sidewalks with curb cuts and doors that automatically open when a person moves near them are examples of universally designed products. They benefit people with disabilities, parents with baby strollers, delivery workers and others.
Signs that use large type, high contrast and symbols may have been designed for people with a vision impairment, but well-designed signs help everyone read them from further away, or in less time, or to understand directions better. This applies to website design, as well.
Simplifying steps in using a product and making instructions easy to understand benefits all users. A person with a memory or reading problem may benefit the most, but children who don’t know how to read yet and people who speak another language may also benefit.
In the case of information technology, products are often designed to eliminate or minimize the need for assistive technologies. At the same time, they are compatible with common assistive hardware and software devices.
In short, Universal Design meets the needs of all. It is a thoughtful and creative design process that goes beyond accessibility requirements. As it is applied, all of society will be included in the use of physical environments, products, delivery methods, information resources and technology. This inclusion will enrich us all!