What’s it called? Terminology and universal design

Picture of the back of a house that is being built. The ground is just dirt. Overlaid are words in different colours: Adaptable, Universal, Visitable, Usable, Accessible, Disabled, FlexibleUniversal, inclusive, accessible, design-for-all – are they all the same? Some would argue there are some differences, but the goals are very much the same – inclusion of everyone. Different disciplines, different practitioners, and different countries tend to favour one over the others. Academics find this problematic as it makes it difficult to build an international body of research on a topic where terminology can vary so much. Regulations and codes have not helped the cause: Web accessibility standards, Adaptable Housing standard, Access to Premises Standard, and then there is “universal access” which tends to relate to the built environment. Not having an agreed language or terms is discussed in the Journal of Universal Access in the Information Society. The article  has a long title: Universal design, inclusive design, accessible design, design for all: different concepts—one goal? On the concept of accessibility—historical, methodological and philosophical aspects. This is a very useful paper to get a grasp of how we have come to this position and where we need to go. You will need institutional access for a free read, or it can be purchased.

Abstract: Accessibility and equal opportunities for all in the digital age have become increasingly important over the last decade. In one form or another, the concept of accessibility is being considered to a greater or smaller extent in most projects that develop interactive systems. However, the concept varies among different professions, cultures and interest groups. Design for all, universal access and inclusive design are all different names of approaches that largely focus on increasing the accessibility of the interactive system for the widest possible range of use. But, in what way do all these concepts differ and what is the underlying philosophy in all of these concepts? This paper aims at investigating the various concepts used for accessibility, its methodological and historical development and some philosophical aspects of the concept. It can be concluded that there is little or no consensus regarding the definition and use of the concept, and consequently, there is a risk of bringing less accessibility to the target audience. Particularly in international standardization the lack of consensus is striking. Based on this discussion, the authors argue for a much more thorough definition of the concept and discuss what effects it may have on measurability, conformance with standards and the overall usability for the widest possible range of target users.

Editor’s note: I also wrote on this thorny topic in 2009: Calling a Spade a Shovel: Universal, accessible, adaptable, disabled – aren’t they all the same? Or you can get the quick version from the PowerPoint presentation.