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Universal Design

As disabled persons enter the mainstream of society, the range of engineering research has broadened to encompass medical technology, technology for increased function, technology that interfaces between the individual and mainstream technology, and finally, public and systems technology.

Nowhere in any future development plans for the World Trade Center site is there a mention of universal design principles, writes Metropolis editor Susan S. Szenasy. Read story

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



    Edward Steinfeld, Arch. D., Director, is is a Professor of Architecture an expert in accessible design, universal design, human factors research, aging, home modifications, architectural design, product research. research on accessibility and universal design in housing, usability of automobiles for frail older people, methods for measuring the usability of products and environments and the development of a prototype "Universal Bathroom." He is a frequent expert consultant on ADA compliance and building safety. He can be reached by email at

    Center for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access School of Architecture and Planning - University at Buffalo Phone : 716-829-3485 ext. 329, Fax: 716-829-3861, E-mail:

    The Center for Universal Design at
    North Carolina State University
    School of Design
    Tel/TTY: 919-515-3082
    Fax: 919-515-7330
    InfoLine: 800-647-6777
    Laurie Ringaert
    Executive Director (for general questions), or

    Leslie Young
    Director of Design (for housing questions)

    Adaptive Environments
    Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director
    617/695-1225 x 26

    Elaine Ostroff, Founding Director
    617/695-1225 x 30




    The following sites contain information that may be of interest. Please bear in mind that the information at these sites is not controlled by the Center for An Accessible society. Links to these sites do not imply that the Center supports either the organizations or the views presented.
    Read and/or sign up for the free monthly online e-newsletter from RERC on Universal Design at Buffalo at

    "Designing a More Usable World for All," a good overview on universal design from the Trace Center

    In 1999, The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) funded the Center for Universal Design as a research center on Universal Design and the Built Environment, to advance the field of universal design.

    Adaptive Environments Center, Inc. is helping school systems across the country come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law seeks to ensure that persons with disabilities are afforded the same rights as every other citizen, including access to programs and services provided by public schools. Read more about Adaptive Environments' school project.

    Proceedings of "Designing for the 21st Century An International Conference on Universal Design" held June 14-18, 2000 in Providence, Rhode Island are online at the Adaptive Environments Center website at

    The city of Boston has made a written commitment to universal design in its plan to redevelop the South Boston Waterfront. Adaptive Enviroments offers a sampler of examples of universal design for types of places that will be developed in the project. Read about Adaptive Environments' role in the South Boston Waterfront redevelopment

    Concrete Change is an international grassroots effort "to make all homes visitable," says founder Eleanor Smith. "People who use wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility aids are blocked by steps at every entrance of a home. They’re stopped by inches from fitting through the bathroom door in a friend or relative’s home." The group focuses strictly on home access to "the most essential features: entering a home and fitting through the interior doors. Website:

    A short "visitability" handout is available from Concrete Change at

    AbilityHub is designed to help consumers locate information on adaptive equipment and alternative methods available for accessing computers.






    Expert sources

    The Electronic Curb Cut

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