What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is a design philosophy that aims to create an inclusive, sustainable society, where every person can participate to the greatest extent possible (Preiser & Ostroff, 2001; Council of Europe, 2007). It is defined in Irish legislation as "the design and composition of the environment so it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of age, size, ability or disability" (Government of Ireland, Disability Act 2005).

In practical terms, there is no one method to achieve Universal Design. Rather, Universal Design offers a framework within which a range of different user centred, human-centred, user led and participatory design approaches are used with design tools to empower the designer toward design solutions in line with Universal Design principles. It has been described to comprise the following three key elements (Christophersen, 2002):

  1. User-Designer interaction:

    Any design tool or technique, applied by designers, which aims to more closely align the requirements of the end user and the resulting end product(s).

  2. Understanding people:

    Information which promotes further understanding of the target market (i.e. the entire population), such as information on demographics, statistical data, descriptive information of the range of human abilities and the consequences of impairment in any of these abilities, an understanding of how human's interact with their surrounding environment, and so on.

  3. Evidence-based findings:

    Any retrospective information on experiences (positive and negative) of existing products or environments, such as the results of post-occupancy evaluations, can be fed back into the design process to better inform future designs.

Universal Design Teaching and Irish Legislation

Key areas of focus for policy development - nationally and globally - over recent decades have addressed issues such as social inclusion, disability equality, human rights and equality, and sustainability (e.g. Brundtland 1987; Walsh, 2004; UN, 1948, 2006; also see Government of Ireland, 2006, 2007; DoEHLG 2007). These movements paved the way for an approach to design that promoted sustainable and inclusive solutions. At the very heart of these issues is an obligation to meet the diverse and changing needs of all people, as well as an urgent need to address the challenges of Ireland's rapidly ageing population (Government of Ireland, 2006). Universal Design provides a framework through which these challenges can be addressed.

Recognising this, in 2001 the Council of Europe adopted a resolution entitled 'The Tomar Resolution - On the Introduction of the Principles of Universal Design into Curricula of all Occupations Working on the Built Environment '. This document, created to influence and shape legislation and policy at a European and national level, outlined recommendations to member states with regard to the teaching of Universal Design to built environment professionals.

As a member state of the Council of Europe, Ireland was encouraged to bring national policy and legislation in line as follows:

  • Education and training of all occupations working on the
    built environment should be inspired by the principles of universal design.
  • For the purpose of taking early action to promote a
    coherent policy to improve accessibility, the concept of universal design should
    be an integral and compulsory part of the mainstream initial training of all
    occupations working on the built environment, at all levels and in all sectors.
  • Adequate further training should be made available for
    active professionals, such as architects, engineers, designers and town
    planners. Their attendance should be strongly encouraged.
  • Curricula should be developed with the co-operation of
    users, including organisations of and for people with disabilities.
  • The concept of universal design should be brought into
    focus for other professions working with the built environment, such as regional
    planners, property developers, estate agents, landscape architects and landscape
    gardeners, as well as interior designers. It should also be brought to the
    attention of users, customers and clients, including organisations and bodies
    representing them.
  • Awareness of the difficulties people with disabilities
    encounter in the built environment should be raised as early as possible.
  • Education, training and awareness-raising should provide
    everyone dealing with the built environment with the necessary understanding,
    knowledge, skills and values to instil new attitudes and behaviour towards
    achieving a built environment that is universally accessible.

These and other related initiatives (e.g. European Commission, 1996) informed Ireland's Disability Act (2005) which provided for the establishment of a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design as part of the National Disability Authority. A specific role of this Centre, as set out in the Disability Act 2005, Part 6, Section 52, 19C (3):

"In relation to assisting and promoting the introduction of the principles of universal design to courses of education and training, the Centre shall liaise with vocational and third level educational institutions and with professional bodies to

(a) encourage the training in universal design of persons providing-

(i) courses of education and training in universal design for persons preparing to engage in work affecting the environment, or

(ii) courses of training for persons engaged in such work,

(b) ensure as far as practicable that courses of education and training in the principles of universal design are provided for persons engaged in such work, including architects, engineers, town planners, systems analysts, software designers, transport providers and designers of passenger transport vehicles and passenger vessels,

(c) ensure the development of appropriate curricula so that the concept of universal design forms an integral part of the aforesaid courses,

(d) ensure as far as practicable that examinations recognised by professional bodies in such courses include material relating to those principles."

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Challenges in Teaching Universal Design

Many challenges occur related to teaching Universal Design. By its very nature, design is a very dynamic field of study that constantly reinvents or rebrands itself reacting to market priorities. Universal Design as a taught area of content encounters organisational challenges related to available resources, competing priorities and immaturity of the field. A key challenge exists from a misunderstanding that Universal Design is only about accessibility for disabilities. Accordingly, the implementation of Universal Design in built environment design curricula has been uneven on an international level (Preiser and Ostroff, 2001; Kennig and Ryhl, 2002; De Cauwer et al. 2009).

The European Commission (2009) acknowledges "it takes time for attitudes and institutions - political, educational, etc. - to adapt to what is new, in particular when the new element is difficult to define and grasp... Many educational institutions have not yet adapted their curricula to the changing nature of design." The Council of Europe (2007) has encouraged the Governments of member states to "set up a framework for the education sector to instil the principles of Universal Design" and suggested that "the allocation of money to Universal Design training programmes may be a means of raising awareness within the education sector."

The Irish Government is implementing these recommendations as part of its Disability Act 2005 and has established a Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) at the National Disability Authority. The CEUD has arranged for the preparation of this research project by TrinityHaus at Trinity College Dublin to further inform its role to promote Universal Design in third level education.

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Project Objective and Scope

The objective of this research project is to report on the current status of Universal Design teaching in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as compared to international best practice and to undertake the outlining of sample curriculum materials for implementing Universal Design content at third level in Ireland.

The scope of the project includes:

• A review of Irish and international literature and educational practice on Universal Design and related curriculum content;

• Reviewing and documenting practices of teaching Universal Design at TCD;

• Interviews with key stakeholders in TCD concerning opinions, attitudes, practices and outcomes related to increasing the profile of Universal Design thinking in the teaching of design;

• The development of outline curriculum materials in the form of coursework and training modules applicable to use in undergraduate and postgraduate level engineering and related design programs.

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Teaching Universal Design and Teaching with Universal Design

When researching about teaching Universal Design it is common to find a significant amount of resources on Universally Designed education. In education, the potential for Universal Design is two-fold. Firstly, Universal Design content can be incorporated into the curriculum for teaching design (the scope of this study). In addition, a Universal Design approach can be applied to teaching and learning to make it more accessible and usable by a wider range of students. This includes making aspects of the educational environment and educational methods more accessible.

Universal Design applied to education methods and environments have potential to benefit all involved. This trend is associated with a move away from earlier education structures toward a more "Universal Design Education" approach. These practices are commonly labelled Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), Universal Design Learning (UDL) or Universal Instructional Design (UID). According to McGuire et al. (2004) "All learners, including those with disabilities, would have access to instruction and assessment that is flexible and adaptable. The general education classroom and curriculum would foster accessibility." This approach toward more Universal Design education is being applied in school policy and practice involving eligibility, instruction, assessment, accommodations and modifications.