Universal design through a disability lens

a series of black icons on white background depicting people of all shapes and sizes, including a baby in a stroller, a person with a can and a wheelchair user. The term ‘universal design’ means different things to different people depending on their experiences. It emerged from the barrier-free movement in the United States. Once it was realised that barrier-free was good for everyone, it was seen as a universal good. Hence the term universal design. The concept evolved from access to buildings to include everything that is designed. But we should not forget the history and who benefits most. A look at universal design through a disability lens reminds us of our obligations. 

In Access Insight magazine, Dr Ben Gauntlett reminds us of Australia’s obligations to implement universal design. Dr Gauntlett is Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He knows Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is to, 

Head and shoulders of Dr Ben Gauntlett.“undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, which should require the minimum possible adaptation and the least cost to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities, to promote their availability and use, and to promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines”.

Disability policy

Dr Gauntlett argues that adopting universal design principles is a critical aspect of disability policy in Australia. But it’s often thought that the NDIS is the only disability policy that exists. Of course, this is incorrect, but shows the poor level of knowledge about Australia’s disability policy. 

Key aspects of policy from a human rights framework for people with disability are lack of appropriate accessible housing, exercising legal capacity, indefinite detention in the justice system, and sterilisation of women without consent. But housing is the most pressing policy issue.

Dr Gauntlett expresses his concern that some states have indicated a reluctance to follow through with the agreement to adopt Silver level in all new housing. This could mean a breach of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention.

The article concludes that, “We must develop a culture of universal design in all aspects of our society…” and that “every one of us has the obligation to raise awareness of the responsibility of governments to promote and legislate for universal design approaches.”

The article is titled, Recognising the need for universal design approaches through engagement with the United Nations. It is on page 10 of Access Insight – Winter 2021. View on issuu or download as a PDF. 

The Sustainable Development Goals also incorporate universal design and the inclusion of people with disability.