History of UD

Social History

The 20th Century brought about major social changes with respect to civil and human rights.

Medical advances during this period meant that the likelihood of surviving an injury or illness was far greater. People were living longer and the average life expectancy of people with severe impairments was increasing.

Driven in part by factors such as the large number of Second World War soldiers returning home with disabling injuries, the rights and needs of older people and people with disabilities were brought to the forefront. Governments responded with the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation.

The Evolving Design Industry

Disability-Specific Design

As new laws served to promote social inclusion and prevent discrimination, pressure was placed on the design industry to meet the demands of creating accessible and usable products, services and environments.

As the social movements of the 20th Century were gathering momentum, the design industry responded with targeted efforts. Concepts such as barrier-free design, which aspired to remove barriers for disabled people from the built environment, appeared.

The more generalised concept of accessible design emerged in the 1970s and promoted the incorporation of accessible solutions into the general design of products, services and environments.

Assistive Technology

At the same time that the mainstream design industry was evolving, the parallel field of assistive technology strove to provide more specialised solutions for people with specific requirements. Add-on products, that could make a formerly inaccessible product accessible, were more commonly developed and became more readily available.

User-Centred Design and Human Factors

Of major influence to the development of Universal Design were design approaches that considered the needs of users from the very beginning of the design process.

The concept of making a physical alteration to an object to suit a person's needs dates back to early man when materials such as animal bones were first used to create tools. Fields such as Human Factors, Ergonomics and other functional design approaches look at the physical anatomy and the behaviour of the person and use this information to create designs that fit. These design approaches have been of particular interest for health and safety reasons, for example the layout of controls for the operation of potentially dangerous machinery.

More recently the term user-centred design is used to describe design that identifies and addresses the needs, abilities and limitations of the user.

Merging design fields

Combining and drawing from developments in all of the above fields, the concept of Universal Design was introduced.


  • Ostroff, 2001
  • Mendelsohn, 1997
  • Umbach, 2006