Universal Design: Social justice or just marketing?

Corning building in New York. A curved affair with a large plaza in front.Does universal design pursue social justice or is it a marketing strategy? Aimi Hamraie takes a look at universal design from a feminist perspective and claims that this is not a value-free notion and not without symbolic meaning. So, is universal design social justice or just marketing?

If disability is a product of the built and social environments rather than something intrinsic to the body, then universally designing should be the ideal outcome of disability politics. However, the physical environment alone is not enough to account for exclusion. Also, design professions grapple with the idea that universal design is “one-size-fits-all”, which it is not.

This philosophical essay challenges conventional wisdom about universal design. It has a distinctly North American approach underpinned by the civil rights movement. It charts the history of universal design, argues why design matters, and asks, “How can design be universal?” Hamraie concludes that collective access is the way forward – essentially arguing for participatory design, “shifting from value-explicit design for disability to design with and by misfitting bodies more generally.” The title of the article is, “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design”. 

Hamraie is also co-author of a new book, Building Access that brings together UD history and architectural history in designing and making built environments usable by all. The authors ask who counts as the everyone of universal design.

Universalism: who does it serve?

A graphic showing tall buildings and trees set on an architect drawingRob Imrie and Rachael Luck discuss universal design from the perspective of the lives and bodies of people with disability. Their philosophic offering is the introduction to a set of eight papers in a special issue of Disability and Rehabilitation. They ask, Universalism: who does it serve?

Some important questions are raised about the role of universalism and the embodiment of disability. For example, proponents of universal design say that users are crucial to the design process. But what does that mean for the skills of designers – will they be lost or discounted? Designers have the power and skills to design for the benefit of some groups and not others.

The focus of universal design is often on techniques and operational outcomes. Is this enough – are there other aspects to think about? Imrie and Luck provide a paragraph on each paper in the edition. It is an open access publication.

Imrie and Luck conclude:

“The papers, as a collective, are supportive of universal design, and see it as a progressive movement that is yet to realise its potential. The contributors provide insight into the tasks ahead, including need for much more theoretical development of what universal design is or ought to be in relation to the pursuit of design for all and not the few.  This includes development and deployment of concepts that enable non-reductive conceptions of design and disability to emerge, aligned to political and policy strategies that enable universal design to become a socio-political movement in its broadest sense.”

The title of the editorial of the special edition of Disability and Rehabilitation is, “Designing inclusive environments: rehabilitating the body and the relevance of universal design”. Thought provoking reading for anyone interested in UD as a social movement as well as design thinking. There is more on their universalising design blog site.

Accessibility Toolbar