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.”
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.
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.
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
Beach in Turkey with accessibility features
Railing in Naples that has Braille to describe the view.
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
Plans for blind users
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.
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.
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?
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.