Universal Accessibility

Universal accessibility was born from a need to eliminate the barriers found in much of our environment.

These barriers still impede a large group of people from carrying out simple tasks independently.

Universal design is a concept that is defined by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as “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.”

Dropped Curb

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life. 

However, it was the work of Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled (1963), who really pioneered the concept of free access for people with disabilities. His most significant achievement was the creation of the dropped curb – now a standard feature of the built environment.

Tactile paving can assist the visually impaired as they walk.
Tactile paving can assist the visually impaired as they walk.

Universal design emerged from slightly earlier barrier-free concepts, the broader accessibility movement, and adaptive and assistive technology and also seeks to blend aesthetics into these core considerations. 

As life expectancy rises and modern medicine increases the survival rate of those with significant injuries, illnesses, and birth defects, there is a growing interest in universal design.

A retractable wheelchair-access ramp in Protram 205 WrAs tram
A retractable wheelchair-access ramp in Protram 205 WrAs tram

Curb cuts or sidewalk ramps, essential for people in wheelchairs but also used by all, are a common example. Color-contrast dishware with steep sides that assists those with visual or dexterity problems are another. 

There are also cabinets with pull-out shelves, kitchen counters at several heights to accommodate different tasks and postures, and, amidst many of the world’s public transit systems, low-floor buses that “kneel” (bring their front end to ground level to eliminate gap) and/or are equipped with ramps rather than on-board lifts.

A campaign ad for universal design in Hong Kong: Their Point of View

To promote social integration of people with and without disabilities while matching the development in social welfare services.
Universal Design Campaign Advertisement
To you, it’s just a small step. What may be a simple task for you can be an impossible obstacle to overcome for others. Hong Kong PHAB Association is committed to integration between people with and without disabilities, to create a barrier-free society for all.

Beach in Turkey with accessibility features

People aren’t disabled, their city is.
In Turkey, people with reduced mobility can access this beach and the sea thanks to a special access reserved for them. A great initiative that we would like to see around the world! Place: Kızkalesi, Mersin Province, Turkey.

Railing in Naples that has Braille to describe the view.

Visitors are encouraged to feel the installation wherein they run their hands on the railing. (Image: Rob N Roll/Twitter)
Sitting atop a hill that overlooks the Italian city of Naples is the Castel Sant’Elmo (St Elmo Castle) which is a popular tourist haunt. Hundreds walk up to the top of the castle to enjoy the view but there is yet another attraction on display in the castle. A 92-foot-long piece of stainless steel is attached to the wall fence of the castle of one of its large sized windows and it has a poetic description of the view in Braille.

The unique railing was installed by artist Paolo Puddu in 2015 and titled ‘Follow the Shape’ and has been a permanent fixture at the castle since 2017, a report on Ozy.com said. The art had won the fifth edition of the ‘A Work For the Castle’ contest.

Visitors are encouraged to feel the installation wherein they run their hands on the rail and those who can read the Braille script can ‘follow the shape’ on the railing to read the verses from Italian author Giuseppe de Lorenzo’s ‘La terra e l’uomo’ or the ‘The Land and the Man’.

The inscription is carved in both Italian and English and tourists are asked to imagine the stunning view in front of them. The view is of the Tyrrhenian Sea and Italy’s Mount Vesuvius.

London Fitzroy Hotel's hidden wheelchair lift is amazing

This lift uses three automatic rising barriers on the lift to fully enclose the user

Plans for blind users

Photos by Don Fogg

Accessible Design

Accessible design is a design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered. Accessibility sometimes refers to the characteristic that products, services, and facilities can be independently used by people with a variety of disabilities.
Universal access is provided in Curitiba's public transport system, Brazil.

Accessibility as a design concern has a long history, but public awareness about accessibility increased with the passage of legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandated that public facilities and services be fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Usable Design

Like accessible and universal design, usable design serves to create products that are easy and efficient to use. Usability has been defined by the International Organization for Standardization as the “effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which a specified set of users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment.” Usability engineers test the ease at which users can learn to operate a product and remember how to do so when they return to the product at a later time.

Many tools are designed to be easy to hold and use for their intended purpose. For example, a screwdriver typically has a handle with rounded edges and a grippable surface, to make it easier for the user to hold the handle and twist it to drive a screw.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities are not always included in usability tests. Therefore, many products that perform well in usability tests are not accessible to people with disabilities. Increasingly, accessible and universal design considerations are being addressed by usability professionals. For example, accessibility is now a topic on high-profile usability websites such as Usability.gov and Usability First.

Usability shares some key goals with accessibility and universal design. Designers in all three disciplines seek to create product features that are easily discovered and operated by the user. Usability engineers are concerned with aspects of the user experience, that include:

  • Learnability: Can users easily learn how to operate the product, and can they remember how to perform tasks when they return to the product the next time?
  • Consistency: Are product features clearly and consistently labeled?
  • Efficiency and effectiveness: Can users perform tasks with a minimal amount of effort and achieve their goals successfully?
There are many industries in which universal design is having strong market penetration but there are many others in which it has not yet been adopted to any great extent. Universal design is also being applied to the design of technology, instruction, services, and other products and environments.


If product designers apply universal design principles, with a special focus on accessibility for people with disabilities, and if usability experts routinely include people with a variety of disabilities in usability tests, more products will be accessible to and usable by everyone.

You may also like...