Universal design: Moving beyond accessibility accommodations to a more inclusive environment for everyone

Universal design and its application to psychology are discussed.

By Carrie Pilarski, PhD, and Joseph F. Rath, PhD

The term “universal design” was coined by Ronald L. Mace of North Carolina University through his personal experience of practicing architecture while disabled. The concept has inspired a move from accessibility accommodations toward a process of designing for human diversity. Universal design is the process of creating products and built environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation. It aims to meet the broadest spectrum of abilities regardless of age, ability or life status.  

Universal design benefits everyone and promotes a more inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities. With improvements in modern medicine and increasing life expectancies, there are more people who are living with various injuries, illnesses and disabilities. Accommodations that are meant for “special needs” can be stigmatizing and expensive. The burden often falls on the individual with the disability to advocate or arrange for accommodations. Impairments in functioning become disabling when activity is limited by structural or environmental features. Unfortunately, physical and attitudinal barriers limit the full involvement of people with disabilities in their communities. Promoting a more inclusive environment helps to challenge an “ableist” world view by increasing recognition of disability as a diversity factor.    

Universal design incorporates basic principles of equitable use, flexibility, simple and intuitive features, information communicated effectively, minimization of hazards with error, low physical effort, and appropriate size and space for approach and use. These principles can be applied to the planning and design of built environments, communities, products, technology, instruction and the provision of services. Products that may be essential for individuals with disabilities can be beneficial for all. For instance, curb cuts or ramped entryways may be needed by wheelchair users, but also benefit those using rolling luggage or strollers. Public transportation services utilizing floors that “kneel” (lower to bring the front to the ground) or have a ramp rather than a lift are another example. Classrooms, work settings and offices can incorporate plans for variable height surfaces, maneuverability and setups for auditory or visual presentations or instruction. Planning for meetings should address the parking, routes to entrances, building entrances, routing within meeting spaces, the meeting space and the presentation of information. Designing for universal access from the start prevents the need for more costly and often less pleasing adjustments which are implemented later and are frequently only set up to be used for special circumstances.            

Everyone can work to advocate for the implementation of strategies and solutions consistent with universal design. Resources are available through the Department of Justice, the Center for Universal Design and the North Carolina Office on Disability and Health that suggest strategies and solutions for removing barriers. In order to promote a higher standard of equitable and just accessibility for all people, the APA Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP) is exploring opportunities to encourage the integration and promotion of principles of universal design in:

  • education and training programs, 
  • resources and services for practicing psychologists, and 
  • accessibility of psychological services to the public.