Important Definitions

The Disability Act 2005 defines Universal Design, or UD, as:

  1. The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used 
    1. To the greatest possible extent
    2. In the most independent and natural manner possible
    3. In the widest possible range of situations
    4. Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
  2. Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

The United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities endorses Universal Design as the preferred approach. In Article 2 it defines Universal Design: “means the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. “Universal design” shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.”

Article 4 (f): "State Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:

(f) To undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities, as defined in article 2 of the present Convention, 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.”

Universal Design as used in Ireland has a similar meaning to other terms such as; “Design for All”, “accessible design”, “barrier-free design”, “inclusive design” and “transgenerational design”.

Systems Approach to Applying Universal Design

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) applies a human ecological systems approach that describes how individuals and their environments are all interconnected and how these complex relationships interact to influence and shape how people grow and respond. An ecological systems approach of human development recognises the many layers of our environment that influence our development at the macro, meso and micro levels (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This model is closely aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in that having well designed environments that are inclusive are also more sustainable over the longer term.

Applying this framework, Universal Design recognises the various layers that make up the ecosystem as follows:

• Macro level – European/National level –- establishing policies, directives, legislative acts, developing standards, promoting awareness, ensuring the diffusion of Universal Design and its adoption at national and regional levels.

• Meso level – institutional level –- covering governance, codes of practice, monitoring/certification, policies and procedures as well as linking families and the community-based initiatives

• Micro level – individual level –- ensuring needs and abilities are recognised and catered for through the development of resources/toolkits  along with training and supports to positively impact on practices; design and layout of the physical environment; technologies including assistive technologies etc.

A good example of this approach specifically focusing on the built environment was the funded research on Universal Design of Shared Educational Campuses in Ireland (2015).