Overview of the History of Universal Design

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.

In the United States Ron Mace an architect coined the term Universal Design, who wanted to focus on accessible housing with a universal design approach. Mace championed accessible building codes and standards in the United States. His thinking and application of the term universal design is an inclusive philosophy so that all people can access and easily use the design.

In the United Kingdom, Selwyn Goldsmith contributed to the idea of dropped kerbs. After consulting with other wheelchair users, they were developed in the early 1960s. The City of Norwich in the United Kingdom was the first city to install them at different intersections. Dropped kerbs make pedestrian and wheelchair access simpler, safer and much more Convenient. A central element of universal design is consultation with users from the concept stage right through to the final implementation of a design.

There have been developments that we all take for granted because of their universality such as:

  • Dropped Kerbs or ramps that was originally intended for people in wheelchairs but now used by all;
  • Automatic door openers are becoming the standard in all places;
  • Low-floor buses with ramps or that lower themselves when picking up passengers are becoming more common everywhere;
  • Cabinets with pull-out shelves, kitchen counters at several heights are becoming popular options everywhere;
  • Captioning feature, while originally intended for deaf people are now being used by more people who are not deaf themselves; and,
  • Design of handles and utensils are becoming more universal and easier to use.

So many more things are now designed with the Seven Principles of Universal Design in mind.

Brief History of Universal Design (Europe)

The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers published the following resolution in 2001 introducing for the first time the concept of Universal Design (Tomar Resolution (ResAP (2001)1) followed by the Recommendation CM/Rec(2009)8 by the European Committee of Ministers to member states on achieving full participation through Universal Design. More details in the section Policy and Legislation.

Brief History of Universal Design (Ireland)

The Institute for Design and Disability (IDD) was established in 1991 following the European Conference on Design and Disability held in Dublin in 1989. The objective of IDD was to promote the inclusion in society of people with disabilities through the exercise of design. It has a membership of architects, designers, rehabilitating professionals and people with disabilities.

More information can be found by visiting the IDD website.

Following the establishment of IDD, the founder Paul Hogan went on to set up the European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD). It was founded in Dublin, in 1993 with support from the EU Commission's HORIZON programme.

EIDD is a non-profit making Non-Government Organisation (NGO) and has national networks operating in thirteen countries which create a network to enhance knowledge about barrier free design and architecture.

EIDD promotes interest in design as a response to environmentally disabling situations and undertakes research, consultancy, awareness training and the dissemination of information. It supports intelligent product technology for barrier free design for all people.

Launch of the National Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (Ireland)

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) came into being in January 2007 following the enactment of the Disability Act 2005.

The Evolving Design Industry

Disability-Specific Design

As the social movements of the 20th Century were gathering momentum and 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. 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.

Human-Centred Design and Human Factors

Of major influence in 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 human-centred design is used to describe design that identifies and addresses the needs, abilities and limitations of the user.

Co-design/Participatory Design

Co-Design is an approach to design that actively involves all stakeholders in the design process to help ensure that the result meets their needs and is usable. Also referred to as participatory design, at the heart of this understanding is the notion that we should therefore not be designing for people, but rather, designing with them.

Merging Design Fields

Combining and drawing from developments in all the above fields, the concept of Universal Design was introduced and has developed and progressed over the years.