Invisible Universal Design

two people are walking towards a door that automatically opens.Richard Duncan reminds us about design features that we never think of as “accessible”. For example, how would supermarket shoppers manage without automatic doors? These doors are everywhere and we don’t think twice about it. But more to the point, we probably do notice any door that doesn’t open automatically when our hands are full or we are pushing a trolley or stroller. That’s when universal design becomes visible – when it’s not there.

When it comes to doors, the worst offenders are revolving doors and that is why many building codes require a separate door for people who cannot navigate the revolving contraption. Other devices we don’t think about are beeping noises at traffic lights. As more people have their heads down looking at their phones, this device designed for people who are blind has become good for many more. Lever handles and taps are now the norm because they are useable by everyone and probably more hygienic. Video captioning has also become a favourite for everyone watching social media on smart phones.  Richard Duncan’s article, Hidden Universal Design: Commercial doors, is on his Linked In page. 

Communication strategies for inclusion

Two green statues, one a man the other a woman sit facing each other in a gesture of communicating with each other.There are lots of reasons why some people have difficulty communicating. It can arise from a brain injury, a stroke, or a condition such as motor neurone disease. Inability to communicate easily often means that people avoid social situations due to feeling inferior. The Conversation article, We can all help to improve communication for people with disabilities, lists some of the simple things that remove the barriers to communication. They range from the kind of devices used by Stephen Hawking, to just giving the person time to finish what they are trying to say. Speech is just one aspect of the issue, hearing is the other. There is useful information under each of the headings in the article:

  1. Remove communication barriers
  2. Prepare for communication success
  3. Build a conversation together
  4. Use communication aids and alternative strategies when you talk.  

The story of Moments Cafe

A cafe counter scene with a person ordering at the counter.Good to see some creative thinking in opening a cafe that welcomes people with dementia. The Design Council article explains how this cafe started with two women who were working in a dementia care facility. They wanted to do more for people living in the community. With financial support from the local council and a crowdfunding campaign they raised sufficient funds to get the Moments Cafe up and running. The Cafe has an office facility above and this is used as an administrative centre for the additional activities they run. The article is a case study in the Design Council Transform Ageing series. 

Accessible, universal, inclusive: which name to use?

Pictograms of people and access symbolsWhich name or label to use when talking accessible, universal and inclusive in design? Is it just semantics? Maybe. But they are intertwined and in the context of ICT and websites it might make a difference to some designers.

The question is addressed in an article on the Adobe Blog site. Matt May writes that “Accessibility is the goal to ensure that products support each individual user’s needs and preferences. Universal design is for everyone, literally, and inclusive design expands with your audience as new design ideas emerge. He cites the definition of inclusive design from the Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto:, “…design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”. Isn’t this how universal design is explained? Better to accept that universal design is about diversity and therefore we can expect a diversity of explanations. As long as the aim is for social and economic inclusion for all then the meaning is in the doing and the outcomes.

It’s worth noting that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities uses the term “Universal Design” and interprets it as an iterative approach to achieving equity and inclusion. The Sustainable Development Goals have concepts of inclusion embedded and cite universal design.

Cultural background – your hidden bias

A globe atlas of the world sits on a desk and lined up in front are small dolls representing different countriesWe need to be aware of our biases if we are to become more inclusive in our thinking, designing and planning. Dr Belina Liddell argues that culture may affect the way your brain processes everything. And that is important. The term “culture” is a very complex web of dynamic systems – beliefs, language and values, and also religion, socio-economic status and gender may play a part too. Dr Liddell says, “Broadly speaking, Western-based cultures focus on an independent and unique self that values autonomy, personal achievement and an analytical style of thinking. This is known as individualism”. But non-Western cultures value collectivism. The article goes on to explain how culture makes a difference to the way we not only perceive things intellectually, but visually as well. All this is from the emerging field of cultural neuroscience.  Now we have new acronym to deal with, WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic. The article also discusses refugee populations. See the ABC science website for more on this interesting article. 

Service design done with UD principles

Distored digitised picture of young people sitting in a group.Most people think of universal design as being something for the built environment, but it is much more than that. Service design is an important factor in access and inclusion. There have been major disruptions in how we shop, get take-away food, share our accommodation and our cars. Universal design thinking processes have a major role to play in service design. This is the thinking of Airbnb and other similar platforms.

The article in FastCompany lists a few things to think about. Here are the headings:

      1. Let a user do what they set out to do
      2. Be easy to find
      3. Clearly explain its purpose
      4. Set the expectations a user has of it
      5. Be agnostic of organizational structures
      6. Require as few steps as possible to complete a task
      7. Be consistent
      8. Have no dead ends
      9. Be usable by everyone, equally
      10. Work in a way that is familiar
      11. Make it easy to get human assistance
      12. Require no prior knowledge to use

Some of these aspects could be applied in other situations too.

Symbol for disability or for access?

four white figures on a blue background showing a man and woman with a square head and a man and a woman with a misshapen head“Does the international symbol for disability need to be rethought”? is the title of an article in the FastCompany blog. First question this raises is, “Is it a symbol for disability or a symbol for access?”  Actually, it is a symbol for access, not disability.. The article proposes a variety of symbols for different disabilities. But do we need more symbols and if so, what purpose would they serve? 

Some people might like to have a symbol they can relate to if they are not a wheelchair user. But could another symbol further stigmatise? For example one of the proposed symbols shows a person with half the head missing. Another shows a square head. Currently the universal and international symbol for access is more about buildings meeting legislative compliance than trying to send a message about different disabilities. The aim of universal design is to not need more symbols and labels, but to need them less. Have a look at the article and see what you think about the proposition of a multitude of symbols.

Editor’s note: During my Churchill Fellowship in 2004, I visited Rehabilitation International (now RIA Global) which ran the competition in 1969 for the international design. They agree that over time this symbol is not the best representation, but difficult to change now. It is the most recognised and understood symbol in the world.

A Tribute to Universal Design Pioneer 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 tieRon 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 Fellowship study 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