Universal Design Guide for sport

In the ramp-up to the Brisbane 2032 Games, Paralympics Australia was fielding lots of calls from sporting organisations and venues. These organisations are keen to achieve higher standards of accessibility and inclusion. Paralympics Australia aims to increase access to sports opportunities, so it was time to devise a universal design guide to help.

The Universal Design Guide for creating inclusive sport in Australia is a valuable reference for sports representative bodies. It provides useful information for beginning the journey towards adopting inclusive practices.

Front cover of the universal design guide in Australian team colours - dark green background with yellow text.

It’s also good for many other organisations because the underpinning principles and processes are the same. There are good examples of this in the sections on practicing inclusivity and beginning the inclusion journey.

A diverse range of people working and competing in different sporting codes provided input to the guide. It addresses structural and attitudinal barriers to universal design and inclusion and comprises:

  • Definitions of accessibility, inclusivity and universal design
  • How to adopt an inclusive mindset and language
  • Motivating case studies
  • Focus activities for universal design
  • Practical guides for: hosting a universal design kick-off meeting, developing inclusive strategy, producing accessible documentation, and designing accessible inclusive digital experiences.
A female wheelchair basketball athlete holding the ball on the playing court.

The guide is very practical with case studies and examples of meeting agenda and social media posts. It concludes with a list of leading organisations and other resources. Download a copy in Word from the Paralympics Australia website.

The authors used every care to use language that is accurate, inclusive, empowering and non-stigmatising. The document will be refined and updated as Paralympics Australia builds its activities to make Australian sport accessible and inclusive. Feedback welcomed.

The International Paralympic Committee also has an Accessibility Guide produced in 2020. It has a wider range of topics that cover the whole event including accommodation and transportation.

Playgrounds: universal design not enough

A girl sits on the ground in a playspace. She is smiling at the camera. Universal design is not enough for inclusion.
Image from “Everyone Can Play” guide.

Children with disability are often excluded from playing at playgrounds due to design limitations. Of course, one solution includes building playgrounds using a universal design approach. However, playgrounds with universal design features are not enough to make an inclusive space. 

Universally designed playspaces bring play into the lives of families with disabilities. They also provide opportunities to champion disability advocacy, and support disabled children in developing critical social skills. However, additional work and resources are needed to achieve full social inclusivity.

Distance shot of children on a carousel or spinner
Image: Livvi’s Place Carousel

Findings from a Canadian study can help guide designs of future playgrounds and other community spaces to improve inclusivity for everyone. 

This paper begins with the playground experience and universal design and then applies this to other public spaces. 

The title of the article is, Understanding the experiences of parents of disabled and non-disabled children at playgrounds designed for disability inclusion. There is no free access to this publication in Disability and Society. However, you can request full access from ResearchGate

From the abstract

Disabled children and their families are often excluded from community play opportunities, including playgrounds. One potential solution is, of course, to design inclusive playgrounds.

This study explores the experiences of parents of disabled and non-disabled children at playgrounds inspired by Principles of Universal Design. Participants were 29 parents (16 with disabled children). They were located across four Canadian cities with newly built inclusively designed playgrounds.

Three themes were identified which provide deeper understandings of ableism in community playspaces and the impact on children and their families. 1. Inclusive playgrounds also act as a platform for disability advocacy. 2. They provide opportunities for social and emotional development. 3. Inclusive play may influence family dynamics.

Findings highlight the value of universal design, but indicate that physical environments alone do not ensure social inclusion, as social barriers can continue to exist even in spaces purposefully designed for disability inclusion.

Disability organisations as social participation

Clubs and societies bring together members with a shared interest which also provides a platform for social participation. The same can be said for disability organisations – with some differences. Disability organisations are a hub of social activity, political activism, and a resource of lived experience for planners. A paper from Sweden looks at this concept focusing on rural communities.

Researchers found that interviewees have extensive social lives and that disability organizations act as a platform for many social interactions.

Two women sit under trees in an outdoor cafe. One sitting on a bench seat at a table and the other is using her rollator or wheelie walker as a seat.

Sometimes acquiring a disability such as rheumatism, prompts people to join groups such as the rheumatism association. Some disabilities cause people to leave paid work so this gives them time to channel their energies into these civic organisations. But it doesn’t end there. Members of these organisations also provide valuable lived experience for local authorities in planning.

There are three dimensions to disability organisations: social participation, political action, and a resource of lived experience. Just on the basis of participation, disability organisations provide good value for their government funding.

Protesters at a disability access rally. A woman is sitting in a wheelchair holding a sign saying access for all. She is wearing a blue jacket and wearing sunglasses.

Disability organisations, and the disability sector as a whole, provide inclusive spaces in which to socialise. The strength of inclusive spaces is they facilitate participation on equal terms. On the other hand, disability-specific places are potentially more flexible and adapted to individual needs. Disability organisations are a form of a disability-specific space which form a base for recognition and a political voice.

Living rural with disability

Living with disability in rural areas is viewed as more of a problem than in urban areas. According to the researchers this is a simplification of how people relate to their environment. Rurality and disability are two different concepts which are not complicated when put together.

The article is titled, “I am a very active person”: Disability organizations as platforms for participation in rural Sweden. The link provides an extended abstract and the full paper is available via institutional access.

A rural road with homes on each side. The homes are painted dark red with white windows.

From the abstract

Disability organizations are places for social interactions and for the accumulation of knowledge about disabilities as lived experiences. They also form a platform for dialogues and political influence work in the local community.

Participation means being included in societal activities in a way that suits the individual’s capacities and ambitions. The role of the public sector also enables participation. That’s because, in Sweden, it supports disability organizations and opens up opportunities to influence local planning.

If more support is given and more disability-specific arenas are created, there will be more open arenas for possible participation. What counts as participation must begin with individuals’ own experiences and values of what they appreciate and need in their daily lives.

Universally designed playground has more use

Applying universal design principles to playgrounds means that more people will use them. That’s what a study of three playgrounds in the United States found. Two were standard playgrounds meeting ADA standards, and one was universally designed. Result? Not only did the universally designed playground receive higher use, there was also more physical activity overall.

There are many types of disability which means definitions of universal design are open‐ended. Consequently the outcomes are difficult to measure quantitatively. But not impossible. At least the move to make playgrounds more accessible has shifted assumptions that universal design is limiting.

100% of the elevated play components that are typically part of a modular play structure must be on the accessible route. But ADA standards require only 50%.

Two children, one in a wheelchair, enter a cubby area.

The researchers set the benchmark for universal design as going beyond the minimum ADA requirements. Doubling the ADA requirements became one of the measures. So where the ADA requires 50% of play structures to be an an accessible route, a universally designed playground requires 100%.

The three playgrounds in the study were of a similar character. Each had equipment of the same type and manufacturer, and the surfacing was the same including the colour.

The main aim of the research was to evaluate the outcomes of playgrounds designed using universal design principles. The secondary aim was to explore the physical activity levels in activity areas in parks and playgrounds.

What they found

The findings support the hypothesis that applying universal design principles can result in higher rates of playground use than those only meeting ADA standards. This counters the notion that such playgrounds are only for those living with a disability. The universally designed playground in this case study was found to be attractive to all users, It offered the same level of fun and challenge for children. The additional playground activity lead to increased physical activity in other areas of the park.

Another finding was that adults used the playground zones more than the researchers expected. Making them more comfortable for accompanying adults was the key. This last point is something that the Australian Everyone Can Play Guideline factored in from the beginning. Playspaces are for everyone regardless of age.

The title of the article is, Universal Design in Playground Environments: A Place‐Based Evaluation of Amenities, Use, and Physical Activity. It contains a good deal of statistical analysis and is useful for persuading funding bodies to take up a universal design approach to playgrounds and parks.

From the abstract

This study compares the impact of universal design on three playground environments, one of which was universally designed. While universal design principles are increasingly used in playground design, most prior work has focused on people with disability. This study explores the impact on all users regardless of their age or disability status.

We used a tool that records observations in three playgrounds and compared use and physical activity in the playground environments. User location and characteristics were recorded on a plan map of the park and the playground. The data were collected from 70 randomized observation periods per park (210 total for the three parks) recording 12,520 total users.

While the total user counts were similar across the three parks, the universal design playground showed 82% more users than in the mean of the comparison playgrounds. The study also evaluated the place‐based effects of park elements on the intensity of park use and physical activity.

The playground areas produced 46% of park use, with the highest percentages of active use (29.2%) in the parks as a whole demonstrating the contribution playground environments make to overall park use and physical activity.

Brisbane 2032: Legacy Strategy

Large scale events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games are contentious because of the cost of preparation. However, with careful planning, these events can leave a legacy of lasting benefits for communities. That’s the aim of the Brisbane 2032 Legacy Strategy.

Vision: “By 2042, we will live in an inclusive, sustainable and connected society, with more opportunities in life for everyone.”  

A green background with the text for the vision for Elevate 2042 in white.

Universal design is mentioned as an underpinning principle for inclusion and accessibility as if they are inherently the same thing. Consequently, the language defaults to “universal accessibility”. This term is often interpreted as meeting disability access standards in the built environment, which do not guarantee inclusive outcomes.

Similar to other policy documents, universal design is explained at the very end. If universal design is an underpinning principle of all aspects of the Games, it should be at the front of the document. Nevertheless, “universal design” is found under each of the focus areas.

Focus of the strategy

The strategy focuses on society, economy, connectivity and environment. The strategy, titled Elevate 2042, uses the Paralympic Games as the platform for “advancing accessibility and empowering people with disability”.

“Elevate 2042 is the catalyst to create a truly inclusive society
for all. From universal design underpinning everything we build to providing sport for
every Queensland child with a disability, I cannot wait to see what we have achieved by 2042.” Dr Bridie Kean

A diagrammatic wheel showing how the focus areas link together for the Brisbane 2032 strategy.

Inclusion and accessibility

By definition, the Paralympic Games must be inclusive and accessible, and the concepts considered across all aspects of both Games. Co-design processes are mentioned in relation to people with disability but not other marginalised groups.

The key points listed on the Paralympics Australia website for “Advancing accessibility and empowering people with disability” are:

  • People with disability can participate fully in the community
  • And have a voice on housing, transport, education, employment and sport
  • With accessible, inclusive sports infrastructure and events
  • Queensland’s Disability Plan 2022-2027: Together, a Better Queensland
  • Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031
Members of Paralympics Australia are posing for a group photo.

Image from the Paralympics Australia website

Previous Games and their legacies

Arial view of the park at twilight that highlights the green grass of the three main stadia. Sydney Paralympic Games.

Simon Darcy charts the whole process and the disability politics of the Sydney Games. Raju Mahto connects tourism with Olympic Games to show how accessibility supports both the event, the legacy and tourism for all. His paper, “Games Events, Accessible Tourism – A Mile to Go with Special Reference of Paralympics”, has some key findings that apply to any major event. By taking a universal design approach Mahto recommends:

  • Tourism operators must understand the needs of customers who have a disability
  • Accommodation establishments should have several accessible rooms
  • Public transportations systems should consider parallel services and ensure easy access to transport hubs
  • Tourism operators need to partner with Games organisers, the community and the private sector.

Public open space and gender

The COVID pandemic made us all realise how important urban public open space is for our wellbeing. However, the enjoyment of public open space is not equally shared across genders. A study from Greece found that all genders found the more “easily accessible” the public space, the more safe they felt.

The notion of “easily accessible” includes visibility from immediate surroundings and from a distance. It also means ease of movement and efficient connections to public transport.

Urban landscape with shade trees and lots of casual seating with people sitting. Going beyond minimum standards.

Women felt less safe than men during the pandemic, particularly in the evening and night hours. The researchers found public space maintenance was strongly related to perceptions of safety. Well maintained and managed outdoor spaces were viewed as safer during the evening and night hours.

In summary, well-maintained, accessible, places that feel secure both day and night are more likely to foster feelings of relaxation. The key design elements for urban public space are:

  • Good visibility and lighting
  • Increase the number of public spaces in urban area
  • Design streets with pedestrian safety in mind
  • Provide safe and accessible public transport
  • Enhance women’s participation in the design process
An older woman walks beside a younger woman in a park.

The title of the article is, Safe and Inclusive Urban Public Spaces: A Gendered Perspective. The Case of Attica’s Public Spaces During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Greece.

From the abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruptions in everyday life, including restrictions on social activities and physical separation. Urban public spaces became popular places for people to relax and socialize while keeping physical distance.

Gender and other social identities, on the other hand, have a major influence on people’s perceptions of safety in these public places. The goal of this research was to look into the relationship between perceptions of safety, relaxation, and gender in urban public places during the pandemic.

We found that women were more likely than men to report feeling unsafe in public places. Women’s feelings of insecurity hampered their ability to relax and enjoy these spaces, possibly limiting their access to public spaces and the benefits they provide.

There is an obvious interrelation between easily accessible open public spaces and safety. The findings outline the significance of inclusive design and planning for public spaces in order to guarantee safety and promote well-being.

Public space for everyone

Not everyone feels safe and welcome in public spaces and some of this is due to the way they are designed. Younger and older people are rarely considered or consulted about built environment decisions. However, age is just one dimension when considering inequity in public space. Disability, gender, cultural background intersect with all ages. A high density low-income area of Los Angeles was used for a study on intergenerational space for everyone.

Nearly all participants expressed enthusiasm about designing public spaces for intergenerational use and interaction.

Two figures are jogging on a path through the trees in open park.

The article describes the participatory method of focus groups, interviews and site observations. The focus on the study was three parks in the Westlake area. Older adults shared personal memories of the parks, often associated with when they first arrived in Los Angeles. Younger people remembered visiting the parks and times shared with family and friends. These happy times were not to continue, however. The parks became run-down and felt less safe and inclusive.

The research revealed that active engagement appeals to both older and younger residents. Park designers might assume that older adults prefer quieter, less active public spaces, but this ignores those who enjoy active engagement. Similarly the stereotype that younger people want activity dismisses those who want a quiet place to read.

The study is another example of participatory action research, or co-design, which is a processes for producing inclusive, universally designed public spaces.

The title of the article is, We should all feel welcome to the park”:
Intergenerational Public Space and Universal Design in Disinvested Communities.
It is open access with PDF and online access.

From the abstract

This article investigates the potential for intergenerational public space in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. We worked with 43 youth and 38 older adults (over 65), to examine their public space use, experiences, and desires. We seek to identify where the two groups’ interests intersect or diverge. A series of site observations, focus groups, interviews, thick mapping, and participatory design exercises were used.

The potential for complementary approaches to creating intergenerational public space was explored using universal design. The importance of taking an intersectional approach to designing public space is emphasized. There are multiple, often overlapping identities of disability and age, in addition to race, class, and gender.

Our findings yield insights for creating more inclusive and accessible public spaces in disinvested urban neighborhoods. There are also opportunities for allyship between groups whose public space interests have been marginalized by mainstream design standards.

Universal park design toolkit

The Universal Park Design Series is a toolkit which has sections on entries, playgrounds, trails and green spaces. The interior spaces section deals with buildings and facilities such as rest rooms and kiosks. It covers basic access features but goes into more detail to provide a universal design approach.

The toolkit is a step-by-step guide for landscape professionals. The Easter Lake Park project in Des Moines was used to inform the tool.

A paved pathway runs along the edge of Easter Lake Park. People are sitting on the grass and on seating under the shelter. Universal park design.

The authors of the tool stress that the guidance does not represent all possible solutions. In other words, designers are encouraged to be creative within the framework of universal design thinking.

The authors crosswalked, or linked, the 7 principles of universal design to the 8 goals of universal design. Then they merged them to form the 5 categories for outdoor recreation areas as shown in the chart below. These 5 categories form the framework for design. The categories are physiological and motor capabilities, processing skills, health and safety, and contextual factors. The fifth category is effort towards sustainability.

A chart showing how the 7 principles of universal design relate to the 8 goals of universal design. Some concepts are merged to form 5 categories for universal outdoor recreation areas.

This chart is a good example of how the principles and goals can be re-worked to suit the context of the project rather than being used as a checklist. Chart is courtesy ShiveHattery.

The Interior Spaces tool is one part of the Universal Park Design Series. Other tools are, programming, parking & entry, playgrounds, trails, beaches and water activities.

From the introduction

This tool is not a one-size-fits-all. Each project should incorporate the practice of co-design, engaging active participation from diverse end-users and subject matter experts. This is to ensure that project anomalies or other factors do not adversely affect the design intent.

Universal design considerations are provided throughout the tool and they provide a summary of main considerations and technical criteria. They should not be regarded as an exhaustive list.

Members of a co-design team may come up with other ways to meet a diversity of users. New materials and technologies that emerge may open up further possibilities for accommodating the diversity of the population.

Each tool is organized into 5 Categories which were selected based on project initiatives and themes collected from academic, user, and practical research.

Variation exists in the categories of interior space design due to differences in operations, organizational goals between different clients and designers, and user perspectives. The foundation of the tool are the priorities for your project, the universal design categories, user input, and key questions to ask yourself as clients and designers.

Parking and entry is another section of the tool.

A related PhD thesis by Courtney Brown is based on the Easter Lake Park project. The title is, Design What Matters, Better: A Case Study of Universal and Inclusive Design Implementation Throughout the Design Process Toward Empowerment. This study challenges entrenched power dynamics within conventional design processes, which perpetuate non-inclusive environments, by empowering marginalized communities through their engagement in the design process.

Stress reduction in neighbourhood parks

Neighbourhood parks provide an opportunity for people to de-stress. But they must be human-centric.

Cognitive restoration design for stress mitigation in neighbourhood parks. looks at landscape design to enhance cognitive well-being.

A pathway with an archway covered in creeping plants with flowers.

Institutional access is required for a free read. Or ask for a copy from ResearchGate.

From the abstract

Many researchers have discovered the healing powers of landscape to human health and well-being, yet its association with psychological and cognitive aspects is still less explored.

This study examines the potential of landscape attributes focusing on neighbourhood parks as a cognitive restorative stimulus for stress mitigation. The factors that lead to stress in the urban community using an expert interview approach and how the landscape design attributes can stimulate cognitive function to reduce stress.

The findings indicated that design for psychological needs must be human-centric. That’s because humans are born with sense, intuition, and preference. Specifically, to stimulate the cognitive part, it is vital to provide landscape design attributes that motivate people to go to the park. Therefore, the design must provide users with comfort, safety and security, social opportunities, and a pleasurable experience.

In praise of pocket parks

Pocket parks are often an afterthought by developers, architects and councils. Typically, they are bits of left over space that can’t be used for a building or a road. With increased population density, this public space needs to be planned. And it needs to be accessible and inclusive.

“These pocket parks are a terrific opportunity to answer that problem and to provide public space for the local community where previously there may not have been any.” Mike Harris, UNSW.

A shady area with seating in a residential setting.

Pocket parks are being created in spaces not previously considered for green space in Sydney. Large parks such as Centennial Park in Sydney are planned, but master plans need to plan smaller parks in subdivisions as well.

Pocket parks are not all the same. A town centre might have more seating whereas a residential one could feature play equipment. They can also be part of mitigating heat effects. In existing developments, creating a pocket park might mean reclaiming portions of the street.

“We must consider public spaces as social infrastructure and value them in terms of their wellbeing benefits,” Ela Glogowska, UNSW.

A neat paved area with a seat, hedging, shrubs and trees. Two storey homes are in the background.

Larger parks are still a must, but smaller places within easy walking distance are also essential. It is worth applying the three basic principles of the Everyone Can Play guide. Can I get there, Can I play, Can I stay. Connection to Country is another factor often forgotten.

The title of the article Architecture & Design is Pocket parks: Small in size, huge in benefits.

Schandorffs Square: Parking lot to park

A distant view of the place and gate showing the winding path, steps and sitting areas in Schandorff Square.
Re-modelled Schandorffs Square in Oslo

Remodelling a sloping urban open space with a heritage building is no easy task. Taking a universal design approach is one way to solve the issues. The re-design of Schandorffs Square shows how to turn a parking lot into a park using a universal design framework.

The problem was making a city space, with a heritage wall and gate, on a sloping site into a pleasant place to walk, and to have informal get-togethers.

The height difference of seven metres was the main challenge. But with some universal design thinking to drive the design they came up with a successful inclusive and accessible design. Lots of seating areas and visual contrast increase the accessibility of the site. In addition, designers also found the right mix of plants to suit people with allergies. 

See more detail on the story about this universally designed open space and the difficulties they overcame. Several photos illustrate the final design, and the designer explains their universal design approach in a Vimeo video. 

Editor’s Note: Norway has almost no flat land and is at the forefront of rolling out universal design everywhere. So the myth that you can’t do UD on sloping sites is put to bed.

Re-modelling a city park

A landscape study brings together aspects of universal design and accessibility with wellbeing. Using an existing park in a Polish city as a case study, researchers had to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of eliminating some features in favour of others.

A view of the park showing many people using the park on a sunny day.

When the remodelling of the park was complete, the final assessment phase showed increased visitation. However, getting to the park was still problematic due to the poor accessibility from nearby streets. This is a key point and something emphasised in the Everyone Can Play guideline that has the three key elements for a successful play space: Can I get there? Can I play? Can I stay?

The title of the study is, The results of qualitative research on health-affirming urban places on example of new planned central park in Gdynia.

Designing public recreational spaces

Urban population growth, climate change, and the energy crisis pose significant challenges for local authorities in shifting policy-making towards sustainable development. The debate on urban planning has centred on the placemaking approach and the implementation of the 15-minute city and smart city concepts. This approach promotes sustainable urban development reliant on links between the natural environment, the economy, and society.

The aim of this study was to explore the possibilities of urban planning solutions that contribute to sustainable urban development. The study was conducted in a medium-sized Polish city where public recreational spaces were redesigned in line with the principles of sustainable urban development.

We propose universal urban development projects that create a sustainable future for society, the natural environment, and the climate. The title of the paper is, The voice of society in designing public recreational spaces in an urban environment. The paper has images of good designs.

Wayfinding by pictures

The Nambour Aquatic Centre has a website that uses pictures to help people to find their way once they reach the facility. It’s done through a simple app on the computer. Wayfinding by pictures is not a new idea, but it is a universally designed idea. Google Map’s street view is obviously catering for a broad audience, so why not other organisations?

Cérge is a communications platform – a digital concierge. It helps organisations provide personalised service to customers with disability. That means it’s also good for everyone.

Aerial view of the Nambour Aquatic Centre - wayfinding by pictures.

Wayfinding by pictures is useful for everyone, but especially useful for people who like to know something about a place before they get there. It’s not just knowing what a place looks like, it is about feeling safe and in control.

The visual story

The visual story begins with the arrival at the aquatic centre with pictures of the car park and pathway to the building. Then there is a section on Sounds, Smells, Feeling, and Sights that you might experience. For example, hearing birds chirping, car smells, the weather, and shaded areas.

Next are pictures of the entry showing the arrival area and the kiosk and a view through to the swimming pool area. These are accompanied by the same four sensory aspects. More pictures show the pool and splash park, along with expected sights and sounds. Images of the indoor pool and the assistive equipment complete the visual tour.

While the content of the website is intended to help people with disability, the website design requires more thought. It requires left to right scrolling as well us up and down scrolling. And there is little information about whether the place is inclusive and accessible to all. Nevertheless, it is a useful example on how to add value to a website with wayfinding by pictures.

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