Universal Design for the 21st Century: Irish & International Perspectives

Richard Duncan, 
Executive Director, Housing Works, Inc., Universal Design Institute, 410 Yorktown Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

It is generally agreed that the term universal design first entered into usage in the mid-1980s by United States (US) architect, Ronald L. Mace, FAIA [1]. Since then the concept of universal design has spread worldwide and has influenced and joined related concepts such as Design for All, Life Span Design, and Inclusive Design. In its 20-year history in the US, universal design has slowly gained acceptance but has seen an uneven adoption. Universal design still remains a strategy that has been implemented by different sectors of the private and public domains, selectively and for fairly narrowly framed purposes. From the perspective of more usable and supportive environments, the US remains principally focused on accessibility: developing regulations, codes, standards, policies and procedures to provide societal inclusion to people with disabilities.

The emergence of universal design depended substantially on many years of work on accessibility and the lessons learned from those activities. Accessibility efforts and the fundamental values of the disability rights movement in large part formed the foundation on which universal design concepts were built. But, universal design came into being partly because of the nature of accessibility that existed in the US by 1985; it was neither commonly found nor was it creatively applied. However, the appearance of universal design did not herald the end of accessibility. Two of the most significant American federal laws requiring accessibility were yet to be enacted by the time universal design began to emerge: the Fair Housing Amendments Act was signed in 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. Universal design and accessibility have continued to develop in a connected yet parallel manner, during the time of the greatest activity in the realm of accessibility code compliance. To be sure, the philosophical basis for the accessibility movement and universal design are quite similar: inclusion, full participation, and social equity. Universal design extends beyond the confines of accessibility to include all persons and creates that inclusion by promoting integrated and mainstreamed products, environmental features, and services.

The national expansion of accessibility provisions into private buildings, multifamily housing, and beyond, has continued the dominant role of accessible design. This has presented a challenge for advocates of universal design in their promotion of conceptual, policy and practical distinctions. While the great advantage of 50 years worth of work on accessible design has been the creation of a markedly accessible non-residential built environment, it has also carved a large space in the collective psychology of people in the US. For example, universal design as a distinct idea is often confused with, if not subsumed by, the more narrowly targeted concept of accessible design. Broadening the beneficiary group of more usable designing to include all of society is a significant practical and symbolic step that still requires much more effort.


Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design - Ron Mace, 1988.

User-focused design did not begin in the past century with accessibility and universal design. Examples of user-centred or human-centred design [3] extend back thousands of years, and often focus on occupational issues such as tools adapted to certain tasks. For example, Umbach (2006) notes Roman chariots built to the scale of warriors and notes the historic use of the dimensional term "foot" as evidence of our attention to the human form.

Moving forward in time by many centuries, the modernist and functionalist design trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to explicitly to consider the day-to-day needs of individuals. Architects such as Klint, Corbusier, Aalto, Oud and those in the Bauhaus and De Stijl schools promoted an assortment of anthropometrics, affordability, efficient use of space, mass production, and housing for the general population. [4] [5] Around that time, Lewis Mumford was also promoting the concept of social architecture that was more responsive to society and to individuals. [5]. These movements never created a groundswell of adoption in architectural practice that extended to an intentional consideration of human performance diversity. Architectural practice in most of the 20thcentury did not attend to lifespan issues and the 'non-average'. [6] This was to be imposed on the field increasingly, beginning in the 1960's.

While architecture remained little concerned, early in the 20th century, the field of industrial design developed in tandem with the fields of ergonomics and human factors. One can trace the more effective response of the industrial design field to usability issues and considerations than was the case with architecture. The development of ergonomics and human factors, and their application in industrial design and engineering, greatly influenced the focus of the universal design principles.

The accessibility field in the US has been part of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities that began after World War II, and was related to the larger worldwide human rights movement principally identified with the United Nations. [7], [8]. The initial major push into accessible building design came after the publication of the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) 117.1 standard in 1961 [9], the first US accessibility design standard.

When Universal Design arose 25 years later, the accessibility work in the intervening years had made great progress by appearing in some federal and state policies with respect to programs and services, architecture, transportation, public rights of way, public spaces, and to a lesser extent, housing. Although not uniformly applied or consistently rendered, by the mid-1980's accessible design was becoming more of a reality for the design and construction industry across the US. Standards such as ANSI 117.1, (and its later revisions following its introduction in 1961) and other accessibility provisions that were based on it were great steps forward in the field, yet had similar flaws. Those flaws revealed the limitations of a code-based approach. Later analysis by Lusher and Mace showed that the codes and standards "...Have been developed by an approach of modifying the norm through the use of a few specially designed features and products to accommodate the 'few' who vary from the norm. "Page 754 [10] The authors point out that this approach led to an 'after-the-fact' implementation of access features (even in new construction) which resulted in "....Facilities which have their own 'functional limitations' and aesthetic problems." Page 754 [10] Other code-based challenges were also noted. "As architects began to wrestle with the implementation of standards, it became apparent that segregated accessible features were 'special' more expensive, and usually ugly." Page 10 [11]

Yet, by 1985 people with disabilities had begun to gain significant access to buildings, programs and services. Unfortunately the access was not always equal or appropriate. In many cases, this access was via separate building features and components. The features were often stigmatizing and weren't integrated into the overall design scheme of a product or feature of a building or environment.

During this period and beyond, the creative process of design professionals often seemed limited when confronted by accessibility goals, as if minimum, replicated access features were all that were needed. Therefore, people with disabilities (and others who could take advantage of those features whether they identified themselves as disabled (or not) were still marginalized even though access to the world was improving.

This marginalized status was unintentionally perpetuated in the short term by expensive changes that were required in completed projects that did not comply with relevant accessibility requirements. These code compliance errors often cost designers and owners a great deal of time and money to correct.
Only after many years of practical experience did the profession begin to move toward more creative and universal outcomes. However, those in the public and the private sectors are still trying to get basic accessibility implemented correctly, if not always embracing universal design.

1. principle one: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


  • 1 Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  • 2 Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  • 3 Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
  • 4 Make the design appealing to all users.

2 principle two: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


  • 5 Provide choice in methods of use.
  • 6 Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.
  • 7 Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision.
  • 8 Provide adaptability to the user's pace.

3 principle three: Simple and Intuitive

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


  • 9 Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  • 10 Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  • 11 Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • 12 Arrange information consistent with its importance.
  • 13 Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

4 principle four: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.


  • 14 Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  • 15 Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  • 16 Maximize "legibility" of essential information.
  • 17 Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  • 18 Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

5 principle five: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


  • 19 Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most
    used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, ISOlated, or
  • 20 Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
  • 21 Provide fail-safe features.
  • 22 Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

6 principle six: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.


  • 23 Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  • 24 Use reasonable operating forces.
  • 25 Minimize repetitive actions.
  • 26 Minimize sustained physical effort

7 principle seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate Size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body Size, posture, or mobility.


  • 27 Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  • 28 Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  • 29 Accommodate variations in hand and grip Size.
  • 30 Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Version 2.0 4/1/97. © Copyright 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design, an initiative of the College of Design. Compiled by advocates of universal design, listed in alphabetical order: Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, & Gregg Vanderheiden

Figure 2.
Universal Design Principles

Human Factors, Ergonomics and Social Equity

Inclusion and integration of everyone in family, work and community life are major goals of universal design. However, the primary social equity instrument among the universal design principles is found in Principle 1: Equitable Use, The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. In fact, without Principle 1 being represented in combination with other principles, (and Guideline 1d. Specifically: Make the design appealing to all users) a universal result is difficult to accomplish. The emphasis on design integration and mainstreaming of features found in Principle 1 should serve as a primary mechanism to leverage universal design into common usage and common acceptance.

The twenty-five years of work on accessible design in the US, from 1960 -1985, formed the body of work from which universal design emerged. Continued progress in the realm of accessibility since then has firmly established accessible design as a fundamental discipline and outcome that has benefited many. Done well and creatively, good accessible design can be truly universal. As was said nearly 10 years ago, "The demographic, legislative, economic, and social changes that brought us to this point are increasing the momentum that will propel us into the 21st century that will need to be more accommodating of individual differences. Universal design provides a blueprint for maximum inclusion of all people." Page 13 [11]

2. Universal Design as a Practical Policy

The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. Ron Mace, 1988

American and European commentators offer important insights into goals and beneficiaries commonly associated with Universal Design. The European Commission notes, "In most respects, the integration of older people and people with disabilities into society will only come about as a result of designing mainstream products and services to be accessible by as broad a range of users as possible" Page 10 [12] Story and Mace assert that universal design should "...integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream...." Page 11 [11] and that it will.... "reduce the physical and attitudinal barriers between people with and without disabilities." Page 11 Italics added [11] Danford states that universal design will "....Yield advantages for everyone but will be of particular importance to people with disabilities."[13] Commentators also mention what is regarded as the core constituencies of universal design: those with disabilities and older persons. The disability movement is properly credited with creating the context from which universal design could materialize in the 20thcentury. The aging phenomenon seems to be a prime driving force for universal design in the 21st century.

While originally developed at the Center for Universal Design, there is no restriction to an individual or organization adopting or adapting the basic universal design concepts. The Center has no control over these adaptations, hence the wide dispersion of many competing interpretations and similar innovative concepts, such as visitability (an US-based approach, limited to housing, that promotes limited usability features), Design for All (a similar idea to universal design, principally in use in Europe), Life Span Design (used in the US, principally reflecting age sensitive design), Transgenerational Design (an idea formed in the US that good design now must accommodate people of all ages), Flex Housing (developed by Canadian Housing and Mortgage that includes features of accessibility as well as other innovative design ideas), and Lifetime Homes (developed in the UK, broadly applied standards with specific usability features) , among many others.

A. The Application of Universal Design

Universal design is now being applied to numerous disciplines and domains. It is not clear that such broad applications were actively considered when universal design was first conceived. At its inception, domains included products, graphics, pubic buildings, housing, and outdoor spaces. However, at the time of universal design's inception in the 1980's, a number of still-developing areas were untested or unknown. The Internet was not envisioned. Widespread personal computer use was new and untested. Now, it is regarded as being applicable at all scales of the built environment, information technology, and to systems and processes. Today, universal design is considered so broadly that few areas seem beyond its reach.


An unfortunate response to the challenge of more accessible environments is to gravitate toward one of two extremes. One path is to mistakenly attempt to make everything "fully usable by everyone" by abandoning creative, interesting and challenging designs. The other path that is sometimes followed is an unfortunate refusal to meaningfully engage the issue by assuming that nothing can be done and that implementing an accessibility or universal design scheme will ruin the integrity of an existing building or proposed design. For example, a challenge is posed in large or complex environments, where it is sometimes not possible for each element to be universal in all respects. The inclination to make all outdoor play spaces fully accessible to children and adults with serious mobility problems is probably misplaced. It is important to be creative about making as much as accessible as possible, keeping in mind all users - parents, grandparents, other family members - within the constraints of a particular project. Where physical access is not always possible, alternate means should be employed to provide comparable meaningful experiences. So a playground or recreation area might be quite universal while not having every place or every experience fully usable by all.

Taking the second path with minimal engagement can produce cursory results. For instance, some believe that single story homes are the only option for universal housing, ignoring the many opportunities for travelling between floor levels that are possible in a universal multi-level home. This effect is also encountered in the realms of historic preservation and renovations where a presumption may exist that nothing can meaningfully be achieved. In less developed outdoor environments such as parks and wilderness areas a related fear is that of nature being paved over. In each case, a thoughtful and creative approach can produce surprisingly effective results that balance several competing interests.

Still, we know that universal solutions aren't possible for all situations. This is why it is promoted as a goal toward which to strive. More narrowly framed and targeted solutions (accessible and assistive technology) will always be required in cases where a particular feature does not meet an individual’s needs. But the growth in the application of universal design will mean that those instances where additional, custom features are required will be fewer, less frequent, more limited, and less costly.

B. Beneficiaries of Universal Design

The world's altered demographics have strengthened the relevance of accessible and universal design. The aging of many societies and the increased numbers of people with disabilities creates an undeniably larger number of people who are obvious, immediate and significant beneficiaries of a more supportive environment. Often cited as the reason for considering a universal design approach in recent years, the changing demographics instead offer the occasion for focusing on improved usability, safety and inclusion.

As outlined earlier, the success of the accessibility movement in the US has created certain unintended challenges for universal design. The clear societal imperative to end discrimination against people with disabilities leaves a concept that is not particularly useful for the design process. The term disability is lumpy. It groups all those to whom the term is applied (even if subdivided) into broad categories of impairment that lose specificity. It is also not helpful to say that something is 'accessible to people with disabilities'. We know that people with disabilities have a vast range of abilities and impairments. A more useful way to consider the users of design is to understand the reality that we all exist along a continuum of human performance and other characteristics. We all vary widely in height, strength, visual ability, hearing acuity, mobility, balance, etc. Each person's characteristics can vary widely from each other and over time: Someone who has a strong torso may have vision that requires the use of assistive technology to see adequately, e.g., eyeglasses. Someone who uses a wheelchair to move from place to place may have acute hearing, and so on. In spite of the frequent associations with accessible design and consequently with the misunderstanding that universal design is solely about design for people with a disability, universal design lends a general focus on the needs of all users ("user needs design"). This is a key distinction of universal design when contrasted with accessibility and assistive technology. As Mace said, "Every individual is unique and as a group, the human species is quite diverse." Page 2[11] Designers need to appreciate the human diversity that exists within and outside of a disability construct.

Extending beyond disability and beyond natural diversity we can also examine personal circumstances and temporary health problems. Many people appreciate and directly benefit from accessible and universal features in the environment. "Families with baby carriages appreciate a transit system that makes it easy for them to get around. People with health problems that affect the spineâ-'bad backs'-are much better off in houses where they do not have to bend or reach so much. Many individuals-delivery people, bicyclists, and those with rolling luggage-use and appreciate curb cuts, stepless entries into buildings, and automatic opening doors. Together with family, friends, and colleagues (including those who may move with some difficulty), all people can enjoy the pleasures of a park or recreation area with stairless and accessible walking paths and accessible amenities." Page 56 [17] The consideration of friends, family, and colleagues greatly multiplies the impact of more or less supportive environments beyond individuals to the social groups in which we all exist. Not to be forgotten are those who we might term, 'circumstantially disabled'. These are people who, in the course of every day life, find themselves operating differently because of their activities. Carrying a briefcase, coffee, or a child will force any of us alter the way we interact with the environment. In the broadest sense, perhaps it is more useful to think of everyone as possessing varying degrees of ability and disability instead of either fully-abled or disabled; or to use other terms that reflect the temporal nature of all our characteristics – temporarily able bodied, fully visual, etc. Perhaps a universal approach will help society move toward a more inclusive considerations of the users of design. Kochtitzky noted, "....The concept of "functional accessibility" for specific groups, few in number, has started a trend toward universally designed solutions that benefit a wide range of people throughout their daily and life-long transitions.€ Page 56 [17]

Cognitive issues, addressed by the human factors component of the principles and guidelines (primarily in Principles 2-5) suggest broadly applicable concepts and interfaces that are appropriate for all ages, and literacies within a particular cultural context.

Many consumers benefit from universal design through safer, more comfortable and usable products and environments, as well as the ability to confidently remain in place at times of temporary disability and as abilities change over time. Producers benefit from an expanded market for fewer products. Universal design improves independence, affordability, marketability, and user image and identity. It is a multidimensional and interdisciplinary issue that requires change in the knowledge, strategies and procedures of designers, manufacturers, builders and marketers in all industries.

C. The Boundaries of Universal Design

Universal design is gradually permeating the collective awareness and finding its way into design practice. However, practical universal design applications with long and tried histories are few. The dominance of accessibility in the US, and the federal and state level compliance mechanisms that have been developed, have created a number of specific means to balance accessibility and non discrimination goals against other governmental and private interests. Because some goals of accessibility and universal design are shared, lessons may be transferable from one to another.

It is generally agreed that universal design may not always be 100% achievable in a single product, feature, or element. This realization shouldn't be used to 'opt out' of grappling with the many challenges of achieving a universal outcome. Challenges are not hard to find: for example, establishing universal characteristics while still ensuring maximum affordability; achieving context sensitive solutions, providing greater usability in wilderness recreation areas, and finding appropriate solutions in historic structures or places. A key process-oriented step in this regard is to assure that designers and others are creatively engaged to think through challenges. Many roadblocks can be overcome with intentional thinking and creative design.

Costs and Affordability

The most frequent trade-off encountered in universal design is that of affordability. Many suggest that an otherwise universally designed product or feature that is quite expensive may, in practice, not be considered universal because of its lack of affordability to many people. This is one reason why universal design proponents work to confirm and communicate the actual low cost of most universal features. Those who are skeptical of accessible and universal design may attempt to cite high cost, especially when it is just for a "few people" advantage. The reality of broad beneficiary groups for universal design, discussed earlier, successfully counters this argument. It is becoming more difficult to assert that few are benefited by improvements to building usability.

It is the clear intent of accessibility provisions in the US is to provide full access to everyone and much effort has been expended to make that happen. However, many government units have attempted to balance the impact of accessibility requirements against the rights of individuals to an accessible environment. Because of the large number of older buildings, a good deal of attention is paid to the most challenging aspect of environmental accessibility: changing existing buildings, elements, and facilities. Adapting existing buildings for accessibility can be expensive as are virtually all renovation projects. Some mechanisms for determining appropriate levels of added accessibility involve assessing the financial exposure of a particular entity in order to achieve a particular level of accessibility. Factors may include the Size of an organization, and the costs of accessibility, and the type of planned renovations, measuring the relative importance of an alteration compared to its financial impact on the entity that will pay for the capital improvements. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development sorts out the obligations of local housing authorities by establishing the requirement to provide an accommodation to an individual with a disability, "....Unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the program or an undue financial or administrative burden." Page 5 [19]

One balancing mechanism provided by the ADA for private entities is the concept of "readily achievable" barrier removal in existing facilities. The regulations allow efforts commensurate with the resources that are available. On this topic Cronburg (1991) states "The law requires that architectural and communications barriers be removed in existing facilities when their removal is readily achievable, or easily accomplished and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense. What is considered readily achievable will vary from organization to organization; a modification may be readily achievable for one place but not for another. Factors to be considered include the nature and cost of the remedial action; the organization's financial resources,....Size....And type...." Page 5 [20] Cronburg (1991) gives additional decision-making guidance by pointing out the existence of a definite hierarchy of priorities to be considered. Access to the facility is considered most important, then access to goods and services, followed by access to restrooms. Similar prioritization might be created across a number of domains.

Full accessibility may also be hindered by structural impracticality or technical infeasibility. If the cost of providing a given level of accessibility is great, other mechanisms might be used. Other means to be considered include providing accessibility through alternative methods, the consideration of auxiliary aids, [20] alternate facilitation, and providing reasonable accommodations. Processes are suggested such as the creation of an access plan, planning in advance, and staff training. In many cases, it is essential for an organization to develop and document a plan for accessibility implementation in stages or phases. It should be understood that even environments that are very universal might not meet everyone’s needs. The use of assistive technology (purpose built, narrowly framed, specialty devices) or other technological solutions in these instances may be required.

The US federal government has also established incentives through the tax system to overcome financial challenges faced by small businesses in implementing accessibility improvements. Tax credits and tax deductions can be used in some circumstances by businesses to remove barriers, provide interpreters or to provide alternate materials or equipment to benefit employees or customers.[21]


How far one needs to go to make an environment universal may also depend on the unit and level of analysis that is used. To use a common example: must every toilet stall in each multi-stall restroom be universally designed? Current requirements call for one or more accessible stalls per restroom. Some question the adequacy of this standard. Given peoples' great variations in Size, strength, and needs for support getting on and off - "one (or two)-design-fits-all" doesn't work. However, there is no consensus of what constitutes a universal toilet stall, much less a fully accessible toilet stall. An ideal universal multi-stall restroom might provide four or five very different stall types that might include a combination of right and left hand stalls, wide stalls and narrow stalls, and low, medium, and high toilet seat heights. Further research and development is needed to explore this issue further.

Information and Choice

Other approaches may involve including information and providing choices. In natural environments where terrain changes, weather, ground surfaces, climate and steep grades are a constant reality, difficult choices must be made about which and how many trails and routes of travel need to be accommodating. An analogy is that of the ski slope grading system that allows skiers to assess the appropriateness of a particular slope's challenges. In this way, an individual can match their skills to the slope's level of difficulty because they have been provided information about slope characteristics. So providing choices and options while allowing for "levels of challenge" is not inconsistent with a universal approach. Providing clear and usable information about what to expect is crucial to the success of this approach.

E. Other Factors

There is much in common between universal design and most other progressive design and planning concepts. The evolution of building codes has also begun to reflect the more inclusive philosophy of universal design.

Code Compliance

Decades of experience with accessibility code compliance, has produced a slow movement towards improved accessibility. Accessibility has become accepted as normative practice while the industry is producing more buildings that even have universal qualities. Evidence of this progress can now be seen in a major US building code. In the 2006 International Building Code Commentary section, the authors note this shift in approach from accessibility being applied in selective areas only when specified, to the current position requiring an approach to accessibility from the perspective that, "....If it is not specifically exempted, it must be accessible." This section also specifically acknowledges the benefits to others of many accessibility features, for instance the prohibition of protrusions into paths of travel originally conceived to enable people who are blind; also benefiting those who may be distracted. Page 11-3 [24] The code council acknowledges the mainstreaming of accessibility and the benefits that accrue over all of our lives.


Universal design, as part of a supportive and enabling environment, can be seen as a component of social sustainability as it helps the full inclusion and participation in family and community life for all. Universal housing also connects well with the environmental sustainability movement. As Kochtitzky and Duncan said, (2006) in referencing Peterson and Dorsey, "A universal housing approach is consistent with sustainable design principles in that it prevents or reduces otherwise unnecessary (and often very expensive) renovations that might be needed to make a home functional and accessible for someone with disabilities." Page 62 [17] This also saves natural resources by avoiding the need to use more products and building materials.


A critical aspect of universal design, aesthetics, is near the core of universal design and helps to differentiate it from design solutions that might be considered just accessible, assistive or ergonomic. Principle 1 (Equitable Use) clearly requires an appeal in the market place. This drives one fundamental aspect of universal design - characteristics are built in, integrated into the overall scheme, and therefore mainstreamed – not separate and distinct. A universal solution has to work well and look good. While this is true, universal design can also be described as 'astylistic' [25] in that the principles can be applied to, but don't require, any particular architectural or design style to be successful.

Public Health

A relatively new area of influence for universal design is in public health. Interest is growing in the US from federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as indicated in their Healthy People 2010 plan. [26]This plan cited issues of environmental design as important in promoting good health and preventing adverse health outcomes as measured by public health criteria. "To be truly healthy, an individual must have a good quality of life as measured in a number of dimensions. Community designers, such as planners, engineers, and architects, can greatly influence and help fulfill many of these dimensions, as described in Healthy People 2010. The health and quality of life of all people is either promoted or degraded by community design choices made at the local, state, and federal levels."Page 63 [17] Norway reinforces the important relationship to broader environmental and health concerns. "Heavily polluted air leads to immediate illness among people with asthma, but in the long run may also damage other people’s health." Page 7 [2] It is important to emphaSize individual and collective positive health outcomes from universal design, and to note the negative health outcomes from less supportive environments.


Current land use and planning initiatives such as traditional neighborhood design, new urbanism, smart growth, transit oriented design, livable communities and others provide superior land-use, infrastructure, public rights of way, and transportation advantages from a universal design perspective. The Congress of the New Urbanism’s Charter offers great hope. It states, "....Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as cars; cities and towns should be shaped by physically designed and universally accessible public spaces...."[27] While we can take comfort in the synergies between universal design and these other movements, gaps still exist. The positive attributes associated with these initiatives are not carried through to the housing that is produced. In some cases, "The streetscapes and building frontages often result in brownstones and row houses, both of which typically feature deep, narrow building forms set close to the street with first floors three to five feet above the sidewalk, reached by a set of stairs. In residential settings with wood frame homes - detached or attached - a similar scenario is created: small lots with porches set close to the front lot line and/or sidewalk."Page 62 [17] As with so many other areas of challenge, the application of creative thinking should produce solutions to the seeming impasse. "With a little foresight, creativity, and design experimentation, new urbanist designers could achieve universal design outcomes." Page 63 [17]

4. Principles Re-Considered and Conclusions

In spite of the progress that has been made in the field of universal design, it must be remembered that this field is still young: Accessibility itself has only been practiced for 50 years, seriously for only for 25 years. Universal design is just a bit over 20 years since its conceptualization and the principles and guidelines only marked their ten year anniversary in 2007. Areas of potential remain relatively un-examined, much research is needed, the principles themselves might evolve, and practical implementation needs to be developed.

Universal Design Principles Reformulation

Enough time has passed since universal design and the principles were formulated for re-evaluation and reconsideration. All agree that the definition and principles should not remain static, but should be examined, altered and dynamically adapted. There are legitimate issues in several areas:

  • Revise the definition by rewording, lengthening or
    shortening it. For example, one option would be to delete, replace or explain
    the word "adaptation".
  • Adding principles such as those related to affordability
    or sustainability.
  • Articulate in any revised or expanded universal design
    definition and commentary the closely related concepts and generally agreed
    outcomes of a universal approach: comfort, safety, welcoming, competency,
    independence, participation, mainstreaming, integration, cultural and gender
    appropriateness, and inclusion. For example, competency, understood as the
    ability to be successful or capable, is implied but not called out in the
    principles. Rather it is an outcome of applying them. Competency is enhanced by
    an environment that meets expectations, and is easy to understand, allowing
    choice by providing alternate methods of use, related to Principle 3: Simple and
  • Attendant to this is the question of the term's
    worldwide acceptance and appropriateness. It does not translate well into all
    languages. There is a current search for a universally usable term and logo that
    can help focus international efforts and promotion.
  • There is also the additional challenge with a lack of
    weighting of principles: does each of them need to be considered as important as
    the others? When questions of tradeoffs are inevitably encountered, which
    principles, if any, should take precedence?

The fact that people increasingly have the chance to live long lives is a positive sign of a prosperous and healthy society. It is an indicator of good public health, good health care, nutrition and occupational safety. The demographic trends in the developed world will not level off until the middle of the 21st century. Until then the populations of these nations will be in transition, moving towards a stable status of more equal age cohorts with only small diminutions at each level until the later years. This is good. But during this worldwide transition, these societies will be coping with the demographic changes in several key areas. The viability of pension and retirement programs are being stressed, healthcare costs are being stretched, and caregiving systems are struggling to maintain services. All of these systems will have to adapt to the changing population. It should come as no surprise that the built environment would need to make adjustments as well. If the planet can avoid calamity, the developing world might join these ranks before the end of this century and perhaps benefit from the lessons that are now being learned. By embracing universal design, policies, and design and planning practices will be better able to handle those demands and ensure that quality of life values are included.


  1. Mace, R., L., Universal Design, in Designers
    . 1985. p. 4.
  2. Aslaksen, F., et al., Universal Design: Planning and
    Design for All
    . 1997, The Norwegian State Council on Disability. p.
  3. Umbach, S., The Changing Scale of Design.
    Innovator, 2006(Winter 2006): p. 4.
  4. Marcus, G., Functionalist Design. 1995, Munich
    and New York: Prestel-Verlag Publishing. 168.
  5. Imrie, R. and P. Hall, Inclusive Design: Designing
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