Access doesn’t guarantee social participation

Library building with wide level paved pathway to the entrance. Picture taken in Berrigan NSW.It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. So, it’s all very well being able to physically access the built environment, but access doesn’t guarantee social participation. Just considering how the shapes, sizes and ages of different bodies physically interact with the built environment is not enough. If universal design is about increasing access as well as physical and mental wellbeing then there is more work to do. This is the summation of a recent literature review that found social participation aspects of universal design is under researched. 

Similarly to other research on inclusive practice, the need to include non-professionals and users of the built environment is key to creating an accessible and inclusive built environment. The final sentence in the literature review sums up a good call to action. Universal design straddles multiple boundaries. So the amount of collective universal design knowledge should be available and accessible to everyone. Indeed, that is just what CUDA is trying to achieve along with many practitioners

The literature review’s key question was “How is social participation represented in recent discourse around universal design in the built environment”. Studies from around the world were examined from 52 databases. The article includes the methodology and results. 

It is easier to measure whether a person can use a building (accessibility) than it is to measure what they are using it for (participation). The Australian Standards cover accessibility and this is why the story often ends here. 

The title of the article is, An integrated literature review of the current discourse around universal design in the built environment – is occupation the missing link?  The term “occupation” is from the occupational therapy field and means “doing things”. You will need institutional access for a free read. However, you can ask the lead author, Danielle Hitch at Deakin University, for a copy. Or Valerie Watchorn via ResearchGate.  


Purpose: To synthesise current literature regarding applications of universal design (UD) to built environments that promote social participation, identify areas of agreement and areas requiring further attention and development. Occupations refer to personally meaningful activities, which people need, want or must do as part of their daily life.

Materials and methods: Recently published literature (January 2011–December 2017) relevant to UD and built environments, and pertaining to any discipline or professional area, were identified via a systematic search of databases in the EbscoHOST platform. The person–environment–occupation (PEO) model was chosen as a theoretical framework for the review, which included a sample of 33 peer reviewed journal articles.

Results: The current discourse is driven more by description, discussion, and commentary than empirical approaches; although, a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches was employed. Much of the current discourse on UD and the built environment focuses on the person and the environment, with the occupations carried out in built environments and the interaction between these domains not referred to in much detail.

Conclusions: Including occupations, social participation, multi- and trans-disciplinary collaboration, and multicultural perspectives in the ongoing discourse around UD would enable the concept to reach its full potential as a medium for social justice.

Implications for Rehabilitation: The universal design (UD) process must account for the occupations that people perform in the built environment. Multi-disciplinary research and development, using multiple methods, is the most appropriate approach to investigate the application of UD to the built environment. Key areas of contention within the current discourse include meaningful inclusion of non-professional stakeholders, tensions between embracing and eliminating diversity and how professional education should be delivered.