Universal Design Policy: Where to start?

Front cover of the Norwegian Action Plan
Front cover of the Norwegian action plan

The real value of taking a universal design approach is the way it draws everything together. But usually different parts of an organisation have different inclusion policies. These are often treated as an add-on for a special “inclusion department”. But inclusion is everyone’s business. That means one policy across the board. So, where to start when trying to bring a cohesive approach? What about a universal design policy that overarches other policies?

Norway was the first to devise such a policy more than twenty years ago. It has evolved to include all aspects of life. It drives all other policies. Here are three documents to help you get going.

Norway Universally Designed 2025is an action plan for implementing universal design throughout the built environment as a start. The document is evolving and now includes just about everything including communications technology. They key was to look at policies first and make everyone responsible. This one is good for planners. 

Hobson’s Bay City Council has a short policy statement which is a great model for local government. 

The European Union devised a document that has as a useful framework with action points for 15 domains. It was devised some years ago, but the concept of universal design hasn’t changed much since then. A page from an earlier European Union document encapsulates the key points in one page. 

For a more comprehensive approach, the Sustainable Development Goals are also useful. This is because they include social sustainability and the need to be inclusive. 



Just and Fair Design

Museum entrance with steps and ramp integrated. The tiles are a light colour and the way the light falls the whole thing looks very confusing.How can design be fair to everyone? Is it even possible to design for everyone? Do the literal interpretations of universal and inclusive design form a paradox of inclusive design approaches. The authors of Just Design argue that justice and fairness in design is not about the output but about the process, and that inclusion is more about the social context rather than the design of a particular thing. An interesting, if long read, for anyone interested in the philosophy underpinning universal design and inclusive practice. The authors published a similar paper, Fair by Design which is available for a free read on ResearchGate.

Note on the picture: Sometimes called “stramps” – a mix of steps and a ramp are the opposite of accessible and universal design. Hardly anyone can use these without a lot of concentration to avert the risk of falling, and wheelchair users run the risk of running over the edges as the ramp section is not clear. It does not comply with Australian legislation. 

Editor’s comments: Their arguments are not new to practitioners and advocates of universal design. They understand the context of inclusion is also about the participation of users with a range of disabilities. Discussions and decisions between them help solve the fairness issue. So their argument that making things inclusive can end up still excluding some people while true, is not well encapsulated in some of their examples. The example of a museum entrance (pictured above) that integrates steps and a ramp in a way that they cross over each other is an obvious nightmare for someone who is blind, or has perception difficulties, or needs a handrail on all steps. A consultation with users would have produced a different design solution that would be considered fair. They then add the example of a child’s wheelchair – an item that is by its very nature a specialised design. This device cannot fall under the universal or inclusive design flag, but it does allow participation and inclusion in environments designed to accommodate wheeled mobility devices.

It is not clear whether the authors understand the role of user feedback and the iterative nature of designing universally. The aim of authors’ discussion is to propose a theory based on justice and fairness of universal and inclusive design. Their references include the thinking of product designers, as well as built environment designers.

The article, Just Design is by Bianchin and Heylighten and is available from ScienceDirect. 

A similar discussion by the same authors is, Ethics in design: Pluralism and the case for justice in inclusive design.  Available on ResearchGate.


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