We’re not the only organization working in the universal design niche. Unfortunately, due to the market perception, others are rebranding universal design with “softer” terms typically not associated with disability, which just increases confusion.
The common thought is that design professionals simply need more education to design things inclusive to people affected by disability. This is commendable because there’s a recognition and increase in awareness about the need for better design, but it’s also troubling. Certifications given to professionals are usually “add-ons” to another field of practice. Many certifications can be obtained in less than a week, and then the professional is deemed an expert in the field. Some certification training encourages interprofessional collaboration (i.e., between design professionals and health professionals), but it doesn’t occur often.
Of course it’s helpful to learn as much as possible, but let’s get real about what’s practical. All you need to do is look at the health care industry, and see that there are a gazillion different specializations. No one expects a single doctor to be able to address every health need, so why should we expect a single designer to be able to do the same?
For Design Projects
There is also a growing trend of voluntary certifications for universal design projects that meet standards that are defined by an independent organization. While the intentions of such certifications are in the right place, certifications should be approached with caution. If specifications and guidelines are limited in scope, a certified design may not fully meet some people’s needs, regardless of how well it’s marketed.
Credit is also due to those who have and are actively working toward policy change that defines standards for accessible design. However, compliance has proven to be a major problem, as evidenced by the statutory minimums that haven’t been implemented well in America (for decades!). Furthermore, when functional needs fall outside of the minimum accessibility standards typically defined by policy, they’re perceived as “specialty” or “custom.” This perpetuates segregation if policy isn’t comprehensive to the full diversity of functional needs in our society.
Because most things aren’t designed to accommodate people affected by disability, aside from what falls under accessibility laws, the typical response is to modify for access when needed. Modifications rarely result in outcomes that provide universal access, either because of cost involved, or because of compromises that have to be made due to the original design. Also, modifications are typically made for a single individual, and there’s no guarantee that another individual with a disability will have the exact same needs. It is much more cost effective and socially sustainable to design inclusively from the onset.