Critical Design for Universal Design

Four pictures of workshop outcomes explained in the article.What happens if architecture, interior design, engineering and product design students spend a week together to investigate the design of the built environment? The answer is in a paper by Anne Britt Torkildsby. A week of critical design workshops provoked reflection, awareness, empathy and action among the next generation of designers involved in the built environment. By turning design upside down and deliberately creating designs that were impossible or difficult to use, the students learned to take multiple perspectives. The paper provides details of the workshops and the processes, and the outcomes for the students and their designs. The picture shows four of the designs discussed in the article.

Editor’s note: I liked the narrow doorway with a sticky floor that made entry difficult. The designs went on exhibition and others could experience first hand the difficulties and frustration people with different disabilities might have with a design.

The title of the paper isEmpathy Enabled by Critical Design – A New Tool in the Universal Design Toolbox. The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication. 


Captioning helps knowledge retention

A video screen showing captioned text at the bottom.A new study found that students are happy to use captions when learning new information. By testing two groups the researchers found a significant improvement in outcomes by those who had videos with captions vs. videos without captions. Instructors are encouraged to either source educational videos with captions already embedded, or get help from their institution to do it. Or even better, learn how to caption their own instructional videos. The title of the article is, Captioning Online Course Videos: An Investigation into Knowledge Retention and Student Perception.

Access the article via ResearchGate and request a copy of the paper. With more teaching and learning happening online, this is one technique that can benefit all. Captions are not just for people who are hard of hearing. 

A similar study on the benefits of closed captions for learning was carried out by Oregon State University. They surveyed more than 2000 students in 15 institutions and found more than half said captions help by improving comprehension. The most common reasons for using captions were: to help them focus, retain information and overcome poor audio quality of the videos. Transcripts are often used as study guides and to find and retain information. 


Gaining client acceptance of UD thinking

aerial view of three people at a desk looking at a set of construction drawingsAlthough architects might propose universal design principles in designs, it seems that Australia is not the only country where clients are ambivalent at best and resistant at worst in terms of inclusive thinking. In Clients’ Approach to Universal Design – A Slow Change? Sidse Grangaard of the Danish Building Research Institute reports on the research into why clients are not interested in going beyond basic building regulations. It would seem the design and construction industries share much in common across the globe. A useful research project. The full paper is available from the link.

Abstract: When new buildings do not comply with the accessibility requirements of the Danish Building Regulations, the main reason is often attributed to a lack of knowledge and prioritization. It is the experience of architectural firms that clients decide their own focus on accessibility during the design process, and also whether the level of accessibility should be higher than that stipulated in the Danish Building Regulations. Post-occupancy evaluations point out that when the client is particularly conscious of, or ambitious about, accessibility/Universal Design (UD), the result is a building with an extensive level of accessibility. Thus, the client is a key figure for the project and the level of ambition. Based on interviews with 15 Danish clients, this paper presents a characterisation of their conception of Universal Design. It is significant that, as a concept, UD has not gained currency among the clients that let their ambition level be defined by the Danish Building Regulations. In order to capture differences between clients, a description of the client’s conception of users and designs is based on an analytical framework about the concepts of particular, universal, market and equality. The analysis shows that three conceptions about accessibility/UD can be characterized among the clients: 1) accessibility by design, 2) broad accessibility 3) added value. Above all, the findings show that a development is going on towards UD, although slowly.

The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication. 


Valuing disability in higher education

A young man stands between library book shelves. He has a large book open in his hands.The philosophical perspective of this paper could be applied in other areas of life, not just higher education. Benjamin Ostiguy applies the concept of “Deep Ecology” to argue that everyone and everything has an intrinsic value, but that many societies only measure value by how it contributes to the economy. Students with disability are still considered as “outliers” and as persons who must “transcend” their perceived impairments if they are to belong. Ostiguy argues that valuing disability can lead to the “identification of novel veins of inquiry, bolster critical analyses, and help facilitate meaningful change in uncertain times”. The title of the paper is, The Inherent Value of Disability in Higher Education.  10 points to consider based on Deep Ecology thinking are:
1. Employ accessible and inclusive pedagogies, methods, technologies, and research instruments;
2. Avoid adherence to rigid standards and traditional practices absent of “intrinsic value” or unrelated to “fundamental goals”;
3. Before adopting a new or trendy technology, method, or instrument, first consider if SWDs will find it accessible and inclusive;
4. Recognize and value the diverse identities, perspectives, strengths, and challenges represented among college SWDs; cultivate an awareness of intersectional oppressions (e.g., ableism and homophobia);
5. Understand that SWDs are a heterogeneous demographic with identities, priorities, expectations, opinions, and access requirements differing within
and among specific disability “types”. Note that perspectives on disability vary and evolve, so what is deemed appropriate or supportive may/will
vary by generation, culture/ethnicity (e.g., international students), and social/historical context;
6. Employ the concept of universal design in all aspects of your work, including teaching, assessment, research, and service;
7. Develop research questions that account for SWDs and accurately represent/address their perspectives, needs, and sense of dignity;
8. When faced with apparent pedagogic/epistemological dilemmas, err on the side of accessibility and inclusion;
9. Speak out against campus policies, procedures, and traditions that are not universally inclusive, or otherwise stigmatize SWDs;
10. Reject the idea that a student’s value to a campus or academic discipline is proportional with their apparent potential to contribute toward the economy and the upward distribution of wealth.

Abstract: Evidence suggests that college students with disabilities (SWDs) continue to encounter attitudinal and physical barriers while institutions endeavor to offer reasonable supports—mainly in the form of accommodations and modifications. In practice, disability is largely treated as something external and ancillary, with most colleges administering measured allowances, but otherwise managing to avoid change. However, as we proceed into the 21st century, very little seems assured, least of all the status quo. Under the dominant neoliberal regime, virtually everything and everyone is valued in proportion with their perceived economic utility. No longer is higher education widely embraced as a public good. Instead, there is increased scrutiny of the academe with an eye for “value added”, and the returns students can expect with regard to careers and earning potential. Viewed through this narrow hegemonic lens, SWDs must assimilate or transcend their perceived impairments if they are to belong. In this commentary, I introduce key concepts from the environmental philosophy/theory of Deep Ecology to the scholarship of disability in higher education and assert that disability in academe has an “intrinsic value”, irrespective of expected economic utility. I conclude by discussing ways that the deep valuing of disability can lead to the identification of novel veins of inquiry, bolster critical analyses, and help facilitate meaningful change in uncertain times.


UD and public health

Nordic School Pub HealthEvastina Bjork from the Nordic School of Public Health discusses the concept of UD from the perspective of health and wellness in this article. She traces the work done in Norway that precedes the landmark document, Norway Universally Designed 2025” and how it relates to health benefits. Training courses in applying the concepts of UD for professionals were devised and continue to be revised and adapted to keep pace with new learning and updated evidence. Although an academic paper, the discussion about education and training, and application of UD in the health and wellness field is a refreshing perspective.


Universal Design, Architects and CPD

Tyoung people sit at a table which has a large sheet of paper and writing implements. They appear to be discussing something.aking a universal design approach to architectural practice requires a change in attitudes in architectural education. Continuing professional development (CPD) is one way to achieve this. A joint project by the University of Limerick and the IDeA Center at Buffalo resulted in some recommendations and guidelines to help. These were derived from engagement with Irish and international professionals, educators and client bodies. “One of the most important findings of the research is a demonstrated need for new CPD in UD that moves beyond a focus on interpreting regulation and accessibility. It was found that CPD in UD can have a broader value than just helping professionals meet regulatory requirements – it can also provide information and resources that increase design agency, or the intervention in wider societal structures with the aim of benefiting others”. The title of the article is, “A Review of Universal Design in Professional Architectural Education: Recommendations and Guidelines”.

Abstract: There is a growing understanding of the widespread societal benefits of a universal design (UD). To achieve these benefits, architectural professionals must have the knowledge and skills to implement UD in practice. This paper investigates UD in the context of recent architectural education. It traces changing attitudes in the culture of architectural education, and the evolving perception of UD as an important aspect of architectural practice. Specifically, continuous professional development (CPD) can advance knowledge of UD within a human-centred design paradigm. An overview of courses and resources available to architectural professionals in a number of countries in Europe and the USA is provided. Specific recommendations and guidelines are presented that were derived from a process of engagement with Irish and international architectural professionals, architectural educators and client bodies through online survey, workshops, interviews and CPD prototypes.  


Teaching and learning UD in real time

Student's model of the housing site showing topography and buildingsCork County Council in Ireland has provided an excellent opportunity for second year architecture students to get some hands on practice and expand their design thinking. In Kevin Busby and Jim Harrison’s paper, Universal Design in Architectural Education – Community Liaison on ‘Live Projects‘, they report on imaginative examples of student responses to the challenges of integrating age-friendly features in housing. They also report on the learning gained from observing students and finding out the main design difficulties they found in the process. Illustrations demonstrate some of the ideas. Good to see students operating in the real world and making a difference.

The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication.


Universal Design: Tangible and empathetic?

A group of students are on the grass outside the university building. they have several large cardboard shapes and appear to be arranging them in some kind of format.Students rarely get to practice on real clients, and this means they are left with just an academic understanding of issues such as inclusion and universal design. Using age as a lens for thinking about designs is one way to help architecture students understand diversity. The Department of Architecture at Buffalo challenged students through various exercises related to the extremes of age to empathise with, and ultimately design for, small children and frail older people. The article explains their process and is titled:  Age-Focused Design – A Pedagogical Approach Integrating Empathy and Embodiment. Several pictures and graphics help with explanations.

Abstract: Architects seldom design for themselves, yet in the course of studying architecture one is rarely presented with the opportunity to design for a real client. The abstract nature of this education model leads to a focus that typically prioritizes formal or technical design exploration and de-emphasizes the role of the user. While Universal Design centers human bodies within design practice, the broad and often vague ambition of universality is difficult for students to engage within an academic context. We argue that approaching Universal Design through the lens of human age emphasizes the physical, sensorial, and cognitive modes of spatial understanding of the young and old and offers a focused perspective through which to address difference and diversity in architectural education. In this paper we outline a pedagogical approach that prioritizes human embodiments, over physical bodies, and integrates empathic understanding as critical to an inclusive, human-centered design methodology. We will discuss how the approach emerged from design seminars and studios taught in the Department of Architecture at the University at Buffalo and was tested through exercises that challenged students to research, empathize with, and ultimately design for the specific needs, abilities, and desires of individuals at the limits of human age.

The article is from the proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication.


Teaching UD: Progress so far

A group of five students cluster around a computer screen. They look as if they are seeing something important.Tom Vavik argues that there are four pillars to teaching universal design to design students: benefits to society and individuals, laws and regulations, UD thinking as a creative tool and increased market potential. Vavik identifies four main changes that have occurred in UD teaching:

  1. From UD as basic principles to UD as an inclusive design process.
  2. From physical to cognitive accessibility due to becoming a digital society.
  3. From usability and functionality to non-stigmatising aesthetics
  4. From second to first year curriculum and not being a separate course.

In his short paper, Facilititating the Concept of Universal Design Among Design Students – Changes in Teaching in the Last Decade, Vavik argues for another four factors that instructors need to consider in teaching UD:

  1. Decide what the overall learning outcome is, what specific knowledge, skills and experience the students should obtain.
  2. Identify ways to influence the students’ attitudes and ethical values related to the design practice and profession in a UD perspective
  3. Identify what kind of design theory and literature the teaching is based on
  4. Identify the most relevant themes and tasks for the students to work on and ascertain when they are mature enough for this kind of teaching

Abstract: This short paper describes and reflects on how the teaching of the concept of Universal Design (UD) has developed in the last decade at the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO). Four main changes are described. Firstly, the curriculum has evolved from teaching guidelines and principles to focusing on design processes. Secondly, an increased emphasis is put on cognitive accessibility. Thirdly, non-stigmatizing aesthetics expressions and solutions that communicate through different senses have become more important subjects. Fourthly the teaching of UD has moved from the second to the first year curriculum.


Learning about Standards and Universal Design

view from the back of a university lecture theatre where students are seated listening to a lecture.It is assumed that students in design disciplines, such as engineering, automatically learn about standards and how they are developed. According to an article by Jenny Darzentas this is not the case. The way standards are developed and written makes them difficult to understand and apply. Too much emphasis is placed on “learning on the job”. Darzentas says that “education about standardisation would be beneficial in Universal Design courses for design students … especially in Europe and North America. This is in contrast to countries such as Japan, Korea and China (JKC) where courses on standardisation education are routinely found in their universities”. The title of the article is “Educating Students About Standardisation Relating to Universal Design”.

Access to standards documents is not usually discussed as a barrier to accessibility and universal design, but this article draws attention to the need for people not only access the documents easily, but also those documents should provide information in a way that is easy to access. An argument for standards to follow the concepts of universal design?

Abstract: Standardisation education is rarely taught to students in the design disciplines in academic settings, and consequently there is not much evidence about best practices. This paper examines this situation, and elaborates on some of the possible reasons for this situation. Further, it gives an example of how students may be instructed and encouraged to further their interests in standards and the standardization-making process as a means for increasing Universal Design in practice.

This article comes from the published papers from the 2016 Universal Design Conference held in York, UK, which are open access.