Accessibility v. Universal Design


There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to architecture and the disabled: Universal Design and Accessibility

 The first is the most widely accepted: Accessibility.  Accessible Architecture has handicap ramps and hydraulic lifts,  it makes ways for the disabled occupants to be able to use the building.  But it does this by making exceptions for them.  While the non-disabled just walk up three stairs into the building, a person in a wheel chair must wheel themselves up a ramp that jets out away from the entrance and then angles back.  It gives power to the non-disabled who the building is designed for, and the sad thing is they don't even see the injustice.  These exceptions that are required by the ADA can be extremely expensive and they can also be skewed so far that in reality it isn't doing its original purpose of working for the disabled. 

The second school of thought is Universal Design.  This is a relatively new way of dealing with this issue.  Universal Design says that from the beginning the design of a building should be usable by all people.  The way it is designed should not make exceptions but just inherently be able to accommodate all people, and in that way the lines of who is disabled and who is not are blurred and there is more equality.  


My question is what do architects think about this? Which one is better? Which one is more feasible? Is this an architects responsibility?

Nov 20, 11 1:47 pm

how is a stair to be universal?  and if it can't be, and therefore to be avoided if at all possible -- everything at grade?  no sectional shifts of the floor levels?  that's a sad day for architecture...

this opens a lot of glib arguments about how far to extend equality, and yes we should extend interpretive frameworks about power dynamics to the built environment -- but to call a switchback ramp vs. a stair injustice...?

Nov 20, 11 2:15 pm  · 

Well aren't there other options besides stairs? Elevators for one. Rather than a grand stair leading to the facade, what about a facade the uses a slowly inclining ramp? 

Think back to the days of the Jim Crow Law, people were told which bathroom, which water fountain, even which entrance they could use based on the color of their skin, something they had no control over, it was an essential part of their being.  Was that injustice?  To me, it's a tricky thing to tell someone that just because they were forced to be in a wheelchair because of circumstances they couldn't control that they have to go to the side entrance or the back service elevator or that they have to strain their neck at a movie theater because they only place they can sit is in the front.


So yes, injustice. Architecture has been a powerful tool in history from politics to religion, I think it could be a powerful tool in the future for equality.

Nov 20, 11 2:46 pm  · 

elevators are a convenience and a best-case-scenario accessibility answer, but aren't sufficient as a universal design OR accessibility answer. when the power goes out in an emergency, the elevator is locked up. stairs are still necessary, and assistance for those with disabilities will still be necessary. people have to help other people.

i'm a proponent of universal design, but not in the black and white terms in which you frame it, erdawson. it's an ideal - maybe even a utopian one - that we may only be able to approach, not achieve.

the reasons derek mentions are just some. there are situations where an accessible answer for some disabilities runs directly counter to an accessible solution for others! 

i appreciate your desire to erase barriers. it's coming from the right place, and we shouldn't stop trying for universal design. but it's not a substitute for accessible solutions so much as a conceptual framework for how they should be approached. 


Nov 20, 11 3:03 pm  · 

I agree with Steven.  And I'll add to this conversation by way of analogy.  universal design is sort of the architectural equivalent of usability analysis, which is a key concern for product and software developers - how to make the product or system or interface legible, easily learnable, easily usable, easily manipulatable/reconfigurable, easily fixable, easily navigatable.  for product and software developers, there is an understanding that it is not possible to optimize usability for all potential users -- there is no ideal solution that best accommodates everyone, there are only trade offs to assess and decisions to make about how best to serve the largest possible cross-section of the populace or a target populace, depending on the purpose of the tool.  as an example, when designing software, typically what is most efficient in an interface and as tools for expert users is frustrating and incomprehensible for newbies.  Conversely, what is empowering for newbies slows down and frustrates expert users.  Who should the design favor?  Can both be accommodated in some way?  Who is the primary user?  The answers are always context- and goal-dependent.

as with product design and software development projects, architecture tends to be designed for the capacities and needs of the broadest possible target user segment, while adding in additional essential features that make architecture accessible on some minimal level for all.  but it is not possible to optimize for everyone, so we just do the best we can.

having said that, universal design is beneficial to the extent that it eliminates the avoidable inequalities, and while it may not be able to rectify all issues of inequality, it is a substantial contribution.

Nov 20, 11 6:11 pm  · 

Perhaps a more complete presentation of UD will cause this conversation to be more fruitful.

  • Universal Design is not "relatively new" begun in the early 1970's by quadriplegic architect Ron Mace and a vibrant intellectual community of collaborators with earlier roots.
  • UD is a design approach that applies a set of seven principles and is not proscriptive:
  • UD is often called Inclusive Design to capture a European emphasis on user involvement and avoid silly digressions about the absolute impossibility of absolutes such as "universality."
  • UD applied to learning is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
  • UD applied to tourism is Inclusive Tourism:

Three authoritative resources on UD are:

  • The Institute for Human Centered Design

  • The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access

  • The Center for Universal Design


Nov 21, 11 10:28 am  · 

I have been working on a product which I think fits within the spirit of Universal design.  We are working on a project for the National Park Service in which our signs are created to accommodate both sighted and non-sighted individuals.

So along the "Grant Tree Trail" in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, these interpretative signs have high res, 300 dpi, graphics printed on them.  They also have "pictograms" (tactile graphics) engraved into the aluminum plates' surface to give a tactile representation of the visual subject matter.

We then add stainless steel grade two braille to the piece to translate a portion of the text.

Nov 22, 11 10:32 am  · 

Also FYI, I am a judge for this assistive technology award every year:

If anyone has any projects, or knows of anyone working in this field, please e-mail me, we are always looking for nominations.  It's a great effort and there are lots of opportunities.

Nov 22, 11 10:38 am  · 

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