Universal Design For All People: Beyond Mobility

When people think of the word ‘accessibility’ as it relates to the physical environment, most would tend to think of things in terms of what it means for wheelchair users. For example, stairs outside or inside a public establishment are a barrier to wheelchair users, a shortage of elevators cause barriers for wheelchair users, and inaccessible transit and non-kneeling buses are barriers to wheelchair users. But issues of accessibility do not just affect those of us in wheelchairs—it extends to anyone with any type of impairment, mobility or otherwise and beyond. What about the elderly woman in a walker? The older gentlemen using a cane? A mother with a stroller? Someone using crutches as a result of a twisted or broken ankle? Broken elevators, stairs and non-kneeling busses negatively impact them, too.

The Center for Universal Design (C.U.D.) of North Carolina State University operates on a very simple principle: to design products and environments to be used by all people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. This ‘simple’ principle may seem like a tall order—to implement it widely and successfully most certainly is—but the steps the C.U.D. proposes in order to accomplish this task are very logical and common sense driven. There are seven basic universal design principles, along with guidelines, encompassed within universal design, which are as follows:

  1. Equitable use

    Equitable use or usefulness for people with diverse abilities means providing the same means of use for all users identically wherever possible and equitable wherever not. Equitable use attempts to avoid segregation and stigmatization of users based on their ability. Within this would be provisions for privacy, security and safety. Lastly, this principle aims to design things that are appealing to all users. What does this mean in terms of real-world application? Flat entries to buildings with automatic doors; ramps leading up to entrances that are incorporated into the architectural design and green space surrounding a building, so that the ramp is not an eyesore; gender neutral, large accessible bathrooms; access to brail, automated verbal cues and clear, written signage. These are just a few possibilities.

  2. Flexibility in use

    Flexibility in use is design that accommodates a wide range of individual abilities. This means providing the user with a choice for methods of use that would adapt to individual pace while facilitating accuracy and precision. Flexibility in use would naturally accommodate either right-handed or left-handed dominance.

  3. Simple and intuitive use

    Designs that are easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, language use or concentration level aim to eliminate unnecessary complexity and provide consistency with user intuition and expectation. Designs would accommodate a range of literacy and language skills and provide appropriate prompting and feedback both during and after task completion. Imagine instructions that are provided both in written form and verbal cueing, with corrections given, should mistakes be made. Individuals would be able to set the pace of instruction and repeat it as many times as necessary.

  4. Perceptible information

    Communicating necessary information effectively to the user, accommodating a wide range of sensory abilities and ambient conditions. Devices would provide different modes of comprehension, whether they are pictorial, tactile or verbal for consistent redundancy in the presentation of essential information. Information would be presented in a way that would differentiate and contrast essential information from its surroundings, so that users can easily identify it. “Legibility” would be maximized and information would be presented in ways that are easy to explain and describe.

  5. Tolerance for error

    Minimizing hazards and negative effects of unintended errors by arranging elements in order according to necessity. Clear warnings would be provided pertaining to potential hazards and errors while incorporating fail-safe measures. Take for example an automatic door, operating on a sensor rather than a timer, allowing for all individuals to pass through a threshold safely regardless of speed, free of fear that the door may close on them if they are “too slow”.

  6. Low physical effort

    Designs that can be used effectively and comfortably, minimizing physical fatigue by allowing users to maintain a neutral body position and minimizing repetitive movements and sustained physical effort.

  7. Size and space for approach and use

    Appropriate size, space provided for approach and use based regardless of the user’s size, posture or mobility level. This is achieved by providing clear lines of sight for all users –both in a seated and standing position and making the reach of all components comfortable for both seated and standing individuals. Elements of design would also accommodate for variations in grip and hand size, while providing adequate physical space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Visit the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University website for more information.

Propel Physiotherapy is the leading treatment centre for catastrophic neurological injuries and complex orthopedic injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, and sports injuries in the Greater Toronto Area.

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