Universal design : It’s not just about designing for the disabled


According to Center for Excellence in Universal Design:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

The endeavor of a designer while designing an environment must be to meet the needs of all people who wish to use that environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment). Its purpose is not only to benefit a minority segment of the population, but to be accessible, usable and convenient to one and all.

The concept behind universal design is that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special. So a designer must try to cater to the needs of those at the bottom of the ability ladder as well.

The fast-changing realities wheelchair-1595802_1920Universal design is all about adopting a human-centered approach that is user-friendly and convenient, and respectful of user dignity, rights and privacy at the same time. It assumes great significance today as the modern world has been witnessing unprecedented changes in terms of demographics, lifestyles and mindsets, and technologies. While better medical facilities have ensured that life expectancy has increased and fewer younger people will be available in a few years to look after the older ones, on the other hand, the number of people suffering from severe kind of disabilities has also been increasing rapidly over the years. One needs to make sure these people are able to lead an independent life to the greatest extent possible; universal design is the answer.

The main considerations
Accessibility is considered synonymous with designing for the disabled by most people, however, it’s not entirely true. Accessibility is about providing access to every single user irrespective of any other consideration. We often fail to realize that virtually every human being faces some kind of disability like condition at some point in life; you may be unwell, you may have a broken limb, you may be too young or too old to function normally. Again, your ability may vary depending on the type of activity or the environment in which the activity is being performed. So, how do we ensure that an environment/ a building is accessible and usable to the greatest extent possible for virtually every user? Let’s talk about some main design considerations to make the built environment universally accessible.

  • The design should be useful to people with diverse abilities. You shouldn’t try to segregate any segment, it should be appealing to all users.
  • The design should try to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. There should be multiple choices in methods of use and it should be adaptable to user’s pace, precision and accuracy.
  • The user should find it easy to understand, irrespective of experience, knowledge and language skills of the user. It shouldn’t be too complex to use and enough prompting and guidance should be available.
  • The design should effectively provide useful information, regardless of the ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Different modes; pictorial, verbal, tactile; should be used to give essential information, which should be legible, and instructions and directions should be easily understandable.
  • It should be ensured through the design that hazards and adverse consequences of accidental actions or errors on the part of users are minimized. Hazardous elements should be eliminated or at least isolated or shielded. Warnings of hazardous elements must be clear and conspicuous.
  • The users should be able to use the facility efficiently, conveniently and with minimum of fatigue. The design should ensure that sustained physical effort is not required.
  • Adequate space should be provided for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

The concept of universal design is comparatively a new phenomenon, but it’s catching up pretty fast as the awareness about making the products and environments accessible for all is growing. We shall continue discussing the intricacies and benefits of the concept in this series, and also deal in detail with special features to be considered while designing for the disabled. The invaluable suggestions and feedback of our readers are welcome to further make our posts interesting and informative.



About the author
Sandeep Singh is an architect from IIT Roorkee. He is a prolific writer and a sensitive poet. His professional posts mostly cover the future in Architecture.  His books are chiefly devoted to the inner and outer battles that a disabled person in India faces every day.

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