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.


Exhibiting the principles of UD

Diagram of the display showing two semi circlesFinding ways to explain universal design can be difficult when people fall into false assumptions such as it’s “one-size-fits-all”, or it’s “all about people with disability”, and of course, “it costs too much”. Hence three Brazilians have come up with Interactive Universal Design Kiosks to explain social inclusion in architectural design. The kiosk exhibition structure is based on two semi-circles. The visitor follows a carpeted path and is gradually exposed to the concepts related to the principles of universal design. The kiosk setting invites people to interact with information that uses complementary multimedia (printed text, graphic and tactile) and hypermedia (sounds, images and tactile textures and rotating boxes) that visitors select at their own pace.

This is a simple idea and could be developed by any architectural firm or studio to both display their understanding of UD and to pass this on to others, particularly their current and prospective clients. Local Government authorities could create something similar for their foyers. A great way to communicate the UD message – as a concept rather than a particular type of design.

The article, Interactive Universal Design Kiosks: Explanations About Social Inclusion Features in Architectural Design,  is by Marcelo Pinto Guimarães, Angélica Fátima Baldin Picceli, and Paulo Roberto Sabino. Their diagram above helps explain the ideas.


The Real Meaning of Inclusive Design

Jeremy_Myerson.head and shoulders shot. He is wearing glassesThe Co-Founder and Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Jeremy Myerson, is asked questions about inclusive design and how it can be achieved in this article from Metropolis Magazine. He stresses that it is a shift in design thinking and the way designers are taught as well as moving away from a legislative approach. In the article’s concluding paragraph Myerson says:

“The bigger challenge is adapting to a more democratic, participatory approach, rather than being the top-down experts. Industrial designers have taken to it extremely well, but architects are struggling. There was a fantastic project by students at the Royal College of Art who rethought the little figures on architectural models. So there was the pregnant mom with the cigarettes, the teenage mother, the drunk, the violent football hooligan—all these social outcasts. They were trying to make architects think about real people in real social scenarios. That’s what inclusive design is about. It’s not just including people in the built environment or the use of products, it’s including people in the process.”

Logo for the Helen Hamlyn Centre: purple upper caseThe Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art is a major research centre for inclusive design focusing on: Age and Ability, Health Care, and Work and city. In this magazine article Jeremy Myerson responds to the interviewer’s questions:

  • How far have we come
  • Are we finally moving away from a legislation-based model?
  • What are some of the tools you’ve used to make inclusive design more participatory?
  • What else has changed in how we think about accessibility
  • How should we be addressing cognitive disabilities?
  • How much can we expect industry to take on in terms of inclusive design?
  • How does it translate to public policy and the urban realm – the things that are not in the hands of corporations?
  • If we had to think of a new disability discrimination act, what would be some of the key considerations?

8 Goals of universal design

Logo for the IDeA Center at BuffaloThe Seven Principles of Universal Design (NCSU, 1997) are well known in the universal design fraternity and have been used as a baseline for designing a range of goods, services and policies across the world. The IDeA Center at the University at Buffalo has taken these principles and expanded them to focus on social participation and health. Complementing the Principles of Universal Design, the Goals of Universal Design© define the outcomes of UD practice in ways that can be measured and applied to all design domains within the constraints of existing resources. Briefly, the Goals are:

  1. Body FitEd Steinfeld holding his book next to his face.
  2. Comfort
  3. Awareness
  4. Understanding
  5. Wellness
  6. Social integration
  7. Personalization
  8. Cultural appropriateness

The IDeA website adds that “they encompass functional, social, and emotional dimensions. Moreover, each goal is supported by an interdisciplinary knowledge base (e.g., anthropometrics, biomechanics, perception, cognition, safety, health promotion, social interaction). Thus, the Goals can be used effectively as a framework for both knowledge discovery and knowledge translation for practice. Moreover, the Goals can help to tie policy embodied in disability rights laws to UD and provide a basis for improving regulatory activities by adoption of an outcomes-based approach.”

Ed Steinfeld writes more on universal design generally and the eight goals, in an article published in Modern Health Talk in 2014 as a lead up to the publication of his book written with Jordana Maisel, Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments.

The goals were devised by Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012 ©


Universal Design from the perspective of Mace

ron_maceRon Mace is often attributed the title of “Father of Universal Design” and is recognised as the founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. However, little is actually written about him and the groundbreaking work he achieved. Jacob Aronoff’s dissertation, “Catering to All: Disability and Universal Design in the Built Environment” begins with a well researched history of Mace’s work and then uses the subways of New York, London and Tokyo as case studies. In using Mace’s perspective and understanding, Aronoff provides an easy to read story of universal design, its dissemination, acceptance, and its applications.

Here is a quote from the latter part of Aronoff’s dissertation:  “I initially thought of Mace as a purely radical figure. While I have realized that Mace is more measured than I originally anticipated, I believe the case can still be made, that he made a revolutionary transformation in the understanding the disparate approaches to disability and humanity within the Urban Environment. Compared to the world in which Mace was born, there has been tremendous progress, but it was Mace himself, who helped to radicalize the process in developing Universal Design.”

For those who have been following UD this is a good reminder of where universal design has come from, including the work of Selwyn Goldsmith. For those who are new to the ideas, it provides a context for current and future work. Download the dissertation here. 


UD: Diversity of explanations and interpretations

inclusive design symbols
Graphic courtesy of DesignAustria

After spending time with Professor Ed Steinfeld, Professor Rob Imrie and Dr Kim Kullman at various events, workshops and meetings in the last three weeks, I’ve expanded my thinking about universal design. A key thought to emerge from one workshop is that we should embrace the diversity of ways in which universal design is expressed instead of getting frustrated about the various terms used. UD is after all, a concept that embraces inclusion and diversity. So why not embrace the various ways that people come to and express this concept? Continue reading UD: Diversity of explanations and interpretations


Introduction to GAATES

GAATES logoThe Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES) is keen to support the concepts and principles of universal design. This Canadian based NGO has a comprehensive website with resources relating to the built environment, ICT, transportation, tourism, disaster management, and conferences.  The GAATES about us section describes their vision:

“A comprehensive implementation of Universal Design principles takes everyone into account and results in fully inclusive and sustainable environments.  Implementing the principles of Universal Design is the sustainable approach to designing for everyone as it equitably addresses the full life span of individuals as well as environments. This approach is quickly replacing the limited scope and vision of accessible and barrier-free design. Mainstreaming education about Universal Design rather than relying on codes and standards about accessible design, is the only way we will truly achieve an environment usable by all – without adaptation.

Universal Design and Accessibility do not exist in a vacuum, they are inter-dependent upon a number of factors; Education by designers and developers; Development of best practices criteria for Built Environment, ICTs, Transportation, Tourism, etc.; Legislation, Standards and policy that recognize the important of Universal Design; and Universal Design adaption of all facilities and services.

GAATES promotes this comprehensive and inclusive approach, and our unique multidisciplinary, multi-cultural, multi-regional membership assures a global vision in all our projects and solutions.