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How does Universal Design Benefit All People?

By Pam Dewey • universal design, universal design home, inclusive design, universal design principles, disability and design, universal design and disabilities, disabled people, disabilityaccessibility home, making a home accessible, adding accessibility to a home, accessibility improvements, easy accessibility improvements • June 23, 2022

Braille, bathroom grab bars and wheelchair ramps. Most people have encountered some design modifications that make spaces more accessible for people with disabilities. 

However, design modifications aren’t just for people with disabilities. In recent years, universal design has become a more far-reaching concept focused not just on accessibility but also on equity. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, universal design is "a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness and social participation." It focuses not just on physical limitations but also on cultural appropriateness and communication challenges.

The National Institute of Building Sciences states the 8 updated goals of universal design are:

  1. Body fit
  2. Comfort 
  3. Awareness 
  4. Understanding 
  5. Wellness 
  6. Social integration
  7. Personalization 
  8. Cultural appropriateness 

Here are a few ways universal design benefits people of all abilities.

Creates more inclusion

Universal design focuses on inclusion for people of all abilities. According to the National Disability Authority, “Universal design assumes that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special.” In other words, universal design lets go of the idea of normal abilities because it understands there is no normal. Everyone has different needs and abilities. It also helps level the playing field for people with disabilities.

Ensures increased equity in access

A sign with braille ensures people with visual impairments can navigate a business. A sign that includes multiple languages ensures people of varying nationalities can access a space without assistance. But there are also cultural considerations that can ensure equity and inclusion in your space. For example, people of the Muslim faith pray five times a day and are supposed to cleanse themselves before prayer. To be culturally inclusive, a business should ensure employees have a quiet place to pray, access to a bathroom and the time (usually about 15 minutes) to do so.

Focused on different types of people and bodies

Inclusive design also focuses on different types of people and bodies, such as individuals with missing limbs, people who are overweight or little people. The types of accommodations these individuals need will vary (and two people who use a wheelchair may need different accommodations). Still, good design can make adjustments to ensure that a space is easier for people of all abilities to use.

Continues to evolve

The National Institute of Building Sciences also states, “Universal Design should therefore be considered a process rather than an end state. There is never any end to the quest for improved usability, health or social participation.” A range of human abilities and needs necessitates a range of considerations when designing a space. Wheelchair ramps were a relatively early type of accommodation. As people continue to evolve, so too does our understanding of those around us. That means the kinds of accommodations and considerations will change to respond to these new needs and experiences.

For example, our understanding of autism has improved dramatically over the last 20 years, and we now know people with autism often experience sensory sensitivity. Those with sensory sensitivity may experience sensory overload and react strongly to loud noises, bright lights or new smells. Natural light, softer paint colors and noise-dampening designs can make a space more inviting to people with autism, anxiety, ADHD, dementia, trauma and other considerations.   

Promotes independent living

When spaces are designed with varying abilities in mind, more people can use these spaces with greater independence. When kitchen counters are lowered, a person in a wheelchair can access the stove, the microwave and other kitchen appliances without additional assistance. Cabinets with handles instead of knobs are easier to open for people with arthritis or other grip issues. Brighter lighting or under the cabinet lights can make a business or home easier to navigate for people with vision issues.

Needs change over time

It’s also important to understand that everyone’s needs change over time. The National Disability Authority states, “Every person experiences reduced functioning at some stage during his or her lifetime.” As people age, their bodies change. A marathon runner may develop arthritis. Older individuals may experience mobility issues and face a greater risk of serious injury if they fall. People’s eyesight often worsens with age. 

Building your home, business or venue with universal design principles ensures that more people can access your space. It allows more independence for individuals with disabilities, and it helps create more equity and inclusion for your community.