Who was Ron Mace?

black and white photo of Ron Mace. He is wearing glasses and has a beard. He is wearing a light coloured shirt and a dark neck tieNewcomers to the cause of universal design have probably heard the name Ron Mace mentioned. But who is he, and how did he become known as the “Father of Universal Design”? While others, such as Selwyn Goldsmith, had promoted the notion of designing accessible environments before Mace achieved recognition, it is Mace who is most often acknowledged. Mace’s last presentation just before his death in 1998 was at the first International Conference on Universal Design. It gives some insights into his thinking and how universal design evolved from barrier-free design, a term coined in the 1970s. 

Mace contracted Polio as a child. As a wheelchair user he encountered many barriers to studying at university. Nevertheless he achieved his aim and became an architect. After practising conventionally for a short time, he became a leader in accessible architecture. He helped develop the first accessible building code in the US, which was enacted by North Carolina. This led to other policy and legislative changes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 1989 he set up the Center for Accessible Housing, which became the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Editor’s note: I was fortunate to meet Ron Mace’s partner, Joy Weeber, on my Churchill Fellowship study tour. She showed me the video of an interview he gave two days before he died. It helped me understand the history and the passion behind the cause for universal design. Joy, a passionate disability activist and polio survivor, went on to gain her PhD in the area of disability identity and family denial of disability in the search for “normality”. Jane Bringolf.

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