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Bias is an enemy.

The first phrase of the definition of universal design is “design that’s usable by all people.” It’s easy to think, “cool, that just means everyone,” which is true, but that’s also a really complex idea. Ensuring usability across the entire spectrum of people in our society is no simple task.

Here at The Universal Design Project, we focus on people affected by disability because we believe that effective accommodation for this part of the population is the most challenging for successful universal design. Besides, if we can address functional design issues related to disability, everyone else will benefit from the overall ease of use that results.

Universal design isn’t strictly about disability, but it wouldn’t exist if disability didn’t exist.

The World Health Organization takes the position that “disability results from mismatched interactions between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” Given this, we can surmise that disability can be minimized through design, providing we can figure out what interactions take place between people and our designs.

The challenge with universal design (i.e., design that’s usable by everyone) is to understand those interactions. If those interactions aren’t fully understood, it’s likely that a design will not be usable by everyone. We need to recognize that all of us have biases about what makes a design functional, primarily based on our education and/or experiences.

Bias. We all have it.

Bias is not inherently a bad thing, but it directly impacts how things are designed, and we need to figure out how to deal with it. Bias is arguably one of the biggest enemies to progress when talking about universal design. It’s really easy to exclude people from using a design when we design things based on our limited understanding of what’s functional for people, especially when disability is part of the equation.

We’re accustomed to seeing the world through our eyes, not someone else’s.

Here’s the thing: disability isn’t easy to figure out, which means that designing for it isn’t easy. And yes, I’m making a bold claim that we all have very limited knowledge of disability. Let me explain. Generally speaking, there are typically two different ways people perceive disability:

  1. Disability is something that “those other people” deal with. The reality is that we all will likely experience times when our bodies don’t function as optimally as we’d like. When that happens, disability can occur. Disability may not be permanent, and it may not be obvious, but it can affect everyday life… for anyone… including you.
  2. Disability is something that “I understand” because of “my experience with it.” While many of us do understand disability because of personal experience (myself included), that understanding is often extremely narrow in scope. For example, I understand mobility issues related to paralysis because I’ve lived with a spinal cord injury for over half my life. However, I don’t have much knowledge about the day-to-day life of people who are blind or who have PTSD; I know some general things, but not nearly enough to speak authoritatively about design for them.

My point is that people have different perceptions of what disability is and what it affects. Again, all of us have biases about what makes a design functional, primarily based on education and/or experiences.

The best way to deal with bias is to build relationships with other people who see things differently, and then work together.

Working together isn’t easy, but it’s of utmost importance. It’s not adequate enough for designers to understand the following principles of universal design without understanding how they apply to [all] people.

The principles of universal design

© 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design

  1. Equitable use: design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in use: design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and intuitive: use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort: design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. 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.

I listed these principles to help you think about what these might mean for different people with different types of health conditions (or disabilities, depending on your perspective). There’s a lot of detail to consider when designing something that is truly usable by all people…

Universal design should be treated as a challenge

The second phrase in the definition of universal design, following “design that’s usable by all people,” is “to the greatest extent possible.” Something that’s universally designed will work for as many people as possible, regardless of variations in communication, mobility, hearing, vision, cognition, and/or mental health, throughout various stages of the human lifespan.

We should take “to the greatest extent possible” as a challenge. The idea of pushing the limits of what’s possible with design is exciting, but it won’t work well if people don’t work together.

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