How Universal Design Improves Accessibility

When it comes to designing public spaces, there's a new idea that's being incorporated called "universal design." This term is used to describe a public or private space that is completely accessible for all, meaning anyone and everyone can fully use the space. This is a general concept, but it use a range of accessible elements to provide a space everyone can use without needing to adapt, add, or remove any element to make it inclusive and accessible. Here are four ways that universal design can improve accessibility.

An accessible viewing platform at Yellowstone National Park

Universal design creates an all-inclusive environment

Universal design improves accessibility because it creates an all-inclusive environment. The whole point of universal design is to provide a space and environment everyone can access, including all forms of accessibility. This makes the space truly inclusive, as universal design can be adapted to almost anything, usable for all, not just including ADA compliance or having to adjust something for a specific individual.

An all-inclusive environment is important for accessibility because it allows everyone to use the space and be present without the need to adapt, make adjustments, or plan ahead for accessibility. Knowing that a space includes everyone makes that space more exciting to use and allows everyone in the space the ability to focus and be present with the activity.

Accessibility is the standard, not the afterthought

Universal design improves accessibility because accessibility is built into the design. It isn't added after the fact or because the space can be repurposed. A true universal design offers accessibility for all from the beginning. This means that physical space, such as walkways, doorways, and interactive elements, are accessible in the initial designs, not as an afterthought.

True universal design is important for accessibility because while spaces in the U.S. have to meet ADA compliance standards, many fall short of universal design because they only meet the bare minimum of the ADA. A universal design allows the space to be accessible, meaning that every space is not only ADA-compliant, but will provide accessibility to everyone as the standard.

An example is the entrance to a building. Currently, some buildings offer a secondary ramp as an ADA-compliant access point. If the space is universally designed, entrances to the building are accessible to all. For example, the main entrance itself would have a low grade ramp used by everyone, as opposed to only a secondary entrance having a ramp.

Universal design improves accessibility in all areas, not just public spaces

Universal design can be applied to homes as well as public spaces, making it easier for everyone to use the space and live comfortably. Many homes have building standards, but these are not always accessible. Using the concept of universal design would mean that every bathroom, kitchen, and common space would be accessible from the original drawings, not adapted afterwards for those who need specific changes.

This is important because with universal design, every space is inherently accessible and won't have to be adapted to any one set of needs. Knowing that a home is accessible for everyone from the start will make it easier for residents to feel safe and taken care of, knowing that as their life changes, their home will continue to provide for their needs.

An example of this is many homes have to be altered when an elderly person needs a mobility device. The home used to suit their able-bodied needs, but now that their body has changed, the home is no longer accessible. A universally designed home would have the space and the layout that allows accessibility from the start. Universal design would also make visiting the homes of able-bodied friends and colleagues easier for people who use mobility devices.

Examples of universal design and how it improves accessibility

Universal design is an overall concept, so it can be difficult to imagine how every space can be accessible to all. There are already a few examples of universal design in everyday life that highlight not only how universal design is important to accessibility, but also how it serves everyone, not just those that have needs beyond what is currently offered as a standard.

Curb cuts

The simple, yet useful opening to sidewalks and crosswalks allows everyone to access the walkways and cross the street. It's clear how this is important to accessibility, as those with mobility assistive devices need a smooth incline to reach the street and the sidewalk, but this also serves everyone, from families with strollers and small children to anyone wanting to cross a busy street.

Sloped entrances

Some buildings offer a flat, sloped entrance over a set of stairs and a secondary ramp, which provides access to all at the same point. This normalizes the needs of everyone by offering one entrance that serves them all instead of one main entrance and an adaptation or add-on that provides an accessible option.

Automatic doors

This is the most common example, as it's in many public spaces, like grocery stores. These allow anyone entry without needing to physically operate the door. This gives everyone access without a separate button or entrance and makes entering the building the same process for everyone. While automatic doors seem like a no-brainer, many businesses still opt for using a separate button which can be challenging for some people.

Universal design is an important concept to utilize moving forward, as taking the time to design new construction with accessibility and utilization for all in mind can make a significant difference in how everyone uses and accesses the space. The idea of a space everyone can use without any additions, adaptations, or changes may sound utopian now, but with continued practice it can become the standard.

About the Author

Cory Lee

After being diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of two, Cory Lee's thirst for adventure never ceased. He went on many trips around the U.S. when he was younger, and then started taking things internationally when he turned 15. Since then, Cory has traveled to 21 countries across six continents, all while managing to start up his travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, where he shares his accessible, and sometimes not-so-accessible travel adventures with others. Cory is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). He has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, in a nationwide segment for CBS News, Lonely Planet, and many others. His blog won the 2017 Best Travel Blog Gold Lowell Thomas Award. He hopes to inspire other wheelchair users to roll out of their comfort zone and see all of the beauty that the world has to offer.

Cory Lee's ride is a Quickie QM-710.

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Date: 10/20/2020 12:00:00 AM

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