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Universal design & its connection to disability

Universal design is often described as “design for all ages and abilities,” but what does that really mean? It’s gaining popularity every day, partially because of the size of the baby boomer generation, and partially because of society’s increasing interest in being inclusive to people with disabilities.

What is universal design?

Design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Ron Mace, 1985

Part 1: “Design that’s usable by all people…”

The challenge of designing for “all people” is including the myriad of individuals and families affected by disability while ensuring that the design is appealing and useful for everyone. Universal design isn’t strictly about disability, but it wouldn’t exist if disability didn’t exist.

Part 2: “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 every stage of the human lifespan.

Part 3: “without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Adaptation is a process in which an individual has to change the way he or she typically interacts with something. Specialized design is for a specific demographic or need. Universal design is inclusive to any generation someone belongs to or a health condition that someone may have.

Note: yes, some people have significant functional needs that require specialized design. If universal design is the foundation for a design, adding specialized features as-needed is much easier and more cost-effective than if a design is fully specialized.

What is disability?

What’s your first thought when you hear that someone has a disability? We each have our own perceptions of the “d” word based on personal experiences. Many people think about wheelchair users, or have specific experience with a family member or friend who has an illness, chronic pain, had a traumatic injury, or maybe think of someone who was born with autism or other medical complications.

There’s an NPR podcast episode called Unfit for Work that reported on disability in America. While we were listening, we heard this statement:

There’s no diagnosis called disability. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, “We’ve run the tests and it looks like you have… disability.”

3 Definitions:

Disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

World Health Organization

Disability = mismatched human interactions.

Microsoft Design

Think about the people, places, or things that you interact with. Now imagine that you have some sort of health condition that changes the way you interact with those people, places, or things from what is typically perceived as “normal.”

The design of the places we live and the things in which we participate can accommodate many, many, many limitations related to personal health conditions. Design can transform disability into ability.

Who is affected by disability?

We often say we work with people who are affected by disability, which is much broader in scope than people with disabilities. But what do we mean by that?

Simply put, someone doesn’t have to personally have a “disability” to feel its impact. Family, friends, and co-workers can be affected in social situations in which accessibility is an issue, such as visiting someone else’s home or going on a trip with friends. Spouses, parents, and siblings may take on additional responsibilities in caring for someone else’s daily needs. The social and relational effects from the difficulties of what someone else is going through can be limiting, segregating, and emotionally taxing on other people too.

Disability is part of the human experience.

Disability is typically related to an incredibly diverse range of health-related issues in our society. Some are temporary. Some are permanent. Some are visible. Some are invisible. Some are acquired. Some are congenital. Chances are very good that we’ll all experience some form of health condition, whether personally or relationally (friends, family members, etc), simply because our bodies won’t function at 100% throughout our entire lifetime. All sorts of health-related circumstances can make life’s tasks more difficult.

That person is more disabled than me.

I won’t be like this forever. It’s just a short term thing.

If those thoughts have crossed your mind, your perceptions about disability may be unrealistically narrow. It’s most likely because “disability” isn’t something anyone wants to label themselves with. It’s much more enjoyable to think of ourselves like Peter Pan and think that we’ll never grow up (or never have an accident, illness, or injury).

It’s time to take a step back and consider that universal design really makes sense, as our health and abilities won’t remain perfect forever. Life is unpredictable, and we can hope for the best, but let’s not be short-sighted and pretend like universal design is only useful for “those other people.”

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