Conference and Proceedings

2007 Inaugural Conference: "Universal Design for the 21st century: Irish & International Perspectives"

Welcome Address and Introduction

Siobhan Barron, Director, NDA
I am delighted to invite you here today to the first conference of the National Disability Authority's Centre for Excellence in Universal Design - "Universal Design for the 21st century: Irish and International Perspectives".


We are very pleased to welcome Dr. Jimmy Devins, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for Disability and Mental Health who will formally open the conference for us this morning.

I would finally like to extend a warm welcome to the invited speakers, both national and international, who have joined us here today from Europe and the United States.

Today is a day when we formally launch the Centre of Excellence for Universal Design through a conference which takes an in-depth look, with expert international speakers and an audience of key practitioners, at what universal design means.

So what is Universal Design? it is about aiming for barrier -“free environments that are there to meet everyone's needs, whether old or young, tall or short, active or with impaired mobility. It is about design of products and services which can be used by everyone. It is about systems of communication and information technology that are designed with the needs of people with impaired vision, sight or speech as well as everyone else. It is about ensuring that mainstream products, services and environments cater for the diversity of the human condition, without the need for further specialist adaptation.

As director of the National Disability Authority, in which the new Centre for Excellence in Universal Design is located, we appreciate very well how barriers in the environment create real obstacles to the full participation of people with disabilities, and others, in our community.

The National Disability Authority is a statutory body which provides independent and expert advice to the government on disability matters. Our remit covers provision of information and advice; research; development and monitoring of standards and codes of practice for disability services and programmes. This remit has been extended by adding the operation of a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, which is located within the NDA, and whose staff are staff of the NDA.

The NDA has always put the issue of accessibility at the heart of its work. One of our most-consulted publications is building for everyone which is a valued source of information for many architects and engineers. This publication will shortly go into its third edition. We have also developed detailed guidelines on accessibility of websites and it. Other guidance from NDA has looked at accessibility for public transport operators, and producing accessible publications. The NDA's excellence through accessibility award scheme acknowledges the achievement of accessibility by public sector bodies in their buildings, facilities, customer services and ICT. The work of the centre will build on and extend this focus on accessibility, with the specific brief on Universal Design.

The U.N. Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which Ireland signed in March, requires countries that sign and ratify this convention to undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities and to promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines. The principle of Universal Design also underpins the actions set out in the council of europe action plan which Ireland is party to. So while Universal Design addresses the full diversity of human needs, and not just of people with disabilities, universal design is seen at international level as a central element to promoting the rights of people with disabilities to full inclusion in society.

Universal Design is about developing design in a way that takes account of human difference. It is about good design from which we all benefit as we have different needs at different stages of our lives or in different circumstances. For example accessible footpaths with dished kerbs have clear benefits for people who may be using a wheelchair, those pushing a pram, pulling luggage or shopping, or delivering heavy goods on a trolley.

Universal Design is not just about the built environment “it is also about the products we use" the public phone booth, the parking meter, atm machines etc, it is also about the services we access. Its about signage, communication systems and products and it products including websites. In other words it is about the aspects of the environment we interact with daily. It makes sense that they should be able to be used by everybody to the greatest extent possible. It is particularly exciting for us to be in a position where we can influence the necessary changes to make this a reality.

The centre of excellence in Universal Design has been established on a statutory basis, under the Disability Act 2005, which confers an important standing on its work. As such, the establishment of the centre forms an important element in the national disability strategy which gives effect to putting disability policy and services into the mainstream of public policies and services, through joined-up actions and a whole-of-government approach.

Other key elements of the National Disability strategy provide that public service and information are accessible to people with disabilities. Also that accessibility is a key criterion in public procurement with the aim of ensuring that goods and services purchased are accessible to persons with disabilities. A ten-year programme to make local authority facilities, including our streets, footpaths, public parks and amenities such as libraries fully accessible is now beginning. The public areas of all public sector offices and premises must be accessible by 2015. Work is underway on guidelines for accessibility of heritage sites.

The centre will be a source of expertise both for government and also for those of you working in the areas of design, research and development, construction, education, manufacturing, services and innovation. The centre will build on the knowledge and expertise in universal design established both nationally and internationally which hopefully will guide changes in our environment to benefit all our own citizens.

You will hear this morning for Dr. Ger Craddock, the chief officer of the centre, will provide some more detailed information on the aims and objectives of the new centre.

The centre will be focusing on three areas:

  • To support the achievement of excellence in Universal
    Design: standards development and the promotion of compliance with such
    standards;
  • Ensuring that the principles of Universal Design are an
    integral part of the relevant education and training courses, including
    accreditation and raising awareness generally. This work will be critical to
    supporting Ireland in meeting the commitments set out in international
    agreements.
  • The centre is there to create awareness and understanding
    of universal design.


I hope that you find today interesting and informative and that you leave wiser on the subject of Universal Design and the role that you can play in supporting its achievement. I would like to thank you all for coming along and would now like to welcome Dr. Jimmy Devins to formally open the conference.