IDC Bulletin: Why Universal Design?

Oct. 1, 2007

Is it not good enough to meet the prescriptive requirements of the existing barrier-free design elements in the building code?

By Brian Everton 

It is a misconception that an environment designed to meet the barrier-free requirements of most building codes and accessibility guidelines is a "universal design." Although barrier-free design may benefit people with disabilities, it may not benefit those without a disability. Typically, the building code requirements for barrier-free design are seen as a "must have" or a problem to be resolved-not an opportunity or challenge. 

Hardly just for people with disabilities, universal design is a benefit to everyone who occupies the space. Only loosely related to barrier-free design and accessibility, universal design is not a politically correct term for barrier-free. Barrier-free design is a part of universal design, but it is not the equivalent or alternate.

Universal design adopts a more inclusive attitude toward the functionality and usability it creates and the people it serves over time. Universal design as an ideal seeks to provide the maximum amount of enjoyable and independent usability to the most diverse population possible.

Universal design engages the aesthetic—as well as the pragmatic. "Accessible" products and places have often evolved from regulations requiring utilitarian access to environments. The benefit of combining aesthetics with universal design is that any stigma still associated with the standardized, institutional appearance of barrier-free features will be eliminated. Good universal design must serve the end-user; not just people with disabilities.

Technology, economics, organizational and attitudinal constraints may all interfere with the full realization of universal design ideals. As an ideal it will always lag behind societal expectations, but any progress made toward the ideal lays the foundation for increased equality into the future.

Equality does not mean: "Let's treat everyone the same." The prescriptive nature of the building code already suggests that we should treat everyone the same. That is why we still build environments that do not work well. For example, a person who is 4-feet 4-inches tall, does not read English and is using crutches because of a broken ankle would likely be stranded in most fast food restaurants. Equality can only be achieved by accommodating the variety in human capabilities.

Choices must be integrated into design to accommodate life situations. Everyday, people face situations where the environment is not "cooperating" because they have a sore back and a stiff neck, or are a bit fuzzy because of a head cold. The design of the built environment should attempt to allow for differences in people by providing choices. Offering choices is accommodation. Human rights legislation legally requires that the design and operation of most built environments accommodate all its users. There are still lapses in interpretation and compliance; however, equality is beginning to be discussed as an integral part of the functional programming for most built environment interior design projects.

Universal design can provide the basis of accommodation. It is design that improves usability and participation in society. It includes persons with disabilities, seniors, children, people of small stature, and many others whose needs are not included in the building codes and have not traditionally been given consideration. Interior designers need to think and act universally!

Brian Everton is vice-president of communications for Interior Designers of Canada (IDC) and owner of Design For All Inc., a full-service interior design firm in Manitoba that specializes in universal design.

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