Ron Mace is often reported as being the “father of universal design”. While this is not strictly true, he was a passionate leader in universal design thinking. The 20th anniversary of his death gives us pause for thought about his vision that started well before the 1970s. Richard Duncan has posted a short biography of Ron Mace to pay tribute to his vision and work that lives on across the globe. Mace contracted polio as a child and used this experience in his architecture practice where he understood how much the fine detail mattered. He was instrumental in setting up the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. This anniversary also gives pause for another thought: Why hasn’t universal design been universally accepted after more than 50 years of talking about it?
Editor’s note: I was very fortunate to visit Ron Mace’s widow, Joy Weeber, during my Churchill Fellowshipstudy trip in 2004. Joy invited me to her home and was very generous with her time. She showed me a video of his last interview two days before he unexpectedly died in June 1998. Jane Bringolf
Here’s a newsletter snippet from Lifemark in New Zealand about how everyone needs universal designso that everyday tasks could be more convenient for everyone.
“You have most likely heard about Universal Design, we see this term used in a lot of different areas but you probably think it’s irrelevant to you… well maybe not. Universal Design can help you during every moment of your life without you even realising it. Here are a few examples: ▫
Your wide garage will make getting the kids, car seats and buggy in and out of the car easy and risk free – no paint scratches on the walls from opened car doors.
You will be able to open any doors even if both of your hands are full, because of your easy to operate lever door handles. ▫
If your hands are dirty, you’ll still be able to use the lever tap without making a mess. ▫
Plugging in the vacuum cleaner won’t strain your back because the power socket is higher up the wall. ▫
You will access your kitchen utensils/crockery because none of the drawers will be too high or too low and you’ll be able to open every drawer with one little push of your hand/knee.
It’s all very well promoting the classic seven principles of universal design, but how do they materialise in practice? At the end of his paper, Yavuz Arat interprets residential design from the perspective of the seven principles with an emphasis on spatial requirements. Arat argues that designers use average values and they limit the quality of life and standard of living for older people and people with disability. The aim of Arat’s study was to find out how to apply universal design criteria in space design for older people and people with disability and to find solutions. In his summary, he advises that by designing to the principles of universal design, the detailed needs of individuals can be accommodated more easily if the spatial requirements are considered at the beginning of the design phase. The title of the paper is Spatial Requirements for Elderly and Disabled People in the Frame of Universal Design. Professor Yavuz Arat, is based at Konya Necmettin Erbakan University, Turkey.
Universal, 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.
I wrote an article for Inner Sydney Voice Magazine in 2014 that gave an overview of universal design, what it means, and some of the myths that are often applied to it. The article may be of interest to people who are not clear on the concepts underpinning universal design and inclusive practice.The differences between accessible, adaptable and universal design, housing and the public domain are discussed. The links between universal design, sustainability and healthy built environments are also discussed. The article is still relevant as progress towards inclusive environments is still evolving.
Looking to find (and borrow) some nice graphics that dispel the myths about universal design? The Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture has posted a slideshow on 10 myths of inclusive design. Each myth is followed by a slide that dispels the myth with a graphic and a short statement. A handy resource for anyone creating presentations about the value and benefits of universal design. Also good for anyone just finding out about designing inclusively. The ten myths are: it’s expensive, it’s boring, it’s only about physical objects, it’s only about disability, it’s only about assistive technology, it’s not for me, it not concerned with aesthetics, it’s for niche markets, it’s just another buzzword, and it’s only about public services. Also available on Linked In Slideshare.
Note: just to clarify – universal design and inclusive design are the same thing. Different countries sometimes use different terms. The United Nations uses “Universal Design” and this has become internationally recognised.
Universal Design is about accepting and celebrating diversity, so there are many waysin which to explain universal design. This list gives a good idea of what it is about – the underpinning philosophy.
Newcomers 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.
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.
I’ve expanded my thinking about explaining universal design. Working with diversity is a key element of universal design thinking. So having diverse ways of explaining it seems appropriate. Wikipedia and universal design websites will have many of the standard explanations. But universal design is much more of a continuous conversation where many different words can be utilised in discussions. In common use are “inclusive design”, “design-for-all” and “design for the lifespan”. But other words and terms might be:
Provocative design: doing things differently, challenging the status quo.
Fragile design: designs that require community agreement to hold them together.
Careful or caring design: taking care to be inclusive in design thinking and processes.
Everyday design: designing more things to be ubiquitous, accepted and normal.
Thoughtful design: the opposite of thoughtless design where some people feel left out.
Empathetic design: similar to careful/caring design and thoughtful design, by putting yourself in the situation of others.
Looking to the future design: looking at how trends are developing and factoring this into designs.
7 senses design: factoring all our senses into designs.
Collaborative design: in some cultures this is a significant part of the design process – without it the product, service or building won’t be used.
Acceptable design: similar to collaborative design, but perhaps some compromises have to be made.
Disruptive design: changing the way things are done, challenging the status quo of designs, using environments or products in new ways.
Intergenerational design: family structures are diverse – recognising that not every family is a nuclear family whether at home or in the community.
Liveable design: being functional for everyone as well as looking good
Universal usability: focusing on how people use things – used mostly in relation to mobile technology, particularly to include older people
Interaction experience: trying to pull together usability, user experience and accessibility under one umbrella – relates mostly to ergonomics
Perhaps we should be using many different words in different situations to suit the understanding and perspective of different individuals?
As an aside to this list, academia seems keen on adding yet more terms to support their approach to what is essentially the same thing – wanting to be more inclusive with designs. Do we really need any more terms?