Universal Design… explained !


Have you ever had a cramp in your ankle?
Got your shoe stuck in the staircase nosing while you were hastily climbing up?
Ever had a slip in the bathroom?
Struggled hard to find way to toilet in a new environment?
Felt tired while walking on a long pathway with no benches to sit around?
Had difficulty reaching to the topmost shelf of your kitchen?
If you have experienced any of the above features in the built environment, it can be rightly termed as discrimination through design. This discrimination on a daily basis though is not intentional, yet it happens due to the thought of human beings as a specific entity and not a universal being.

Life is uniquely diverse. Such is the experience of most individuals despite belonging to variety of cultures, regions and societies. universal design 1 2846 Man interacts with his world through the built and unbuilt environment(s) which accommodate his movements, lifestyle and participation. There are also individuals, who experience seclusion in the same environment that denies access and thus participation to life itself. That group primarily comprises of children, elderly, and people with disabilities. Their access to the environment around them is limited by their physical abilities and dependency as a result stigmatizes the concept of life for them.

This article revolves around the thought to make environments more inclusive in nature, for if we value life and living beings and believe in equality for all. It brings to focus Universal Design as a philosophy of thought and action for designers and non designers to achieve the goal of inclusive environments. Universal design may be defined as the best approximation of an environmental facet to the needs of the maximum possible number of users. It is neither a new trend nor a new style but a holistic concept that offers a panacea to the above posed problems.

Design Myths and Environmental Gaps

“Designing is a basic human act. Doing something for a definite reason is designing”

– Gillam Scot Robert

A conscious understanding of the above statement should de-mystify the image of design as something associated with colors, external appearances and forms only. As a result of this thought, the role of designers has been undermined and the environmental gaps continue to silently discriminate individuals on the basis of their physical abilities. Continuation of such beliefs has widened the gap between designers and society at large. Individualistic approach to design of environments has resulted in a wide gap between human needs and the way environments are designed around them.

In fact, a good design helps provide integral accessibility for all and does not require a label. Design in reality owes a large onus to give back to society a simpler, easier and an improved quality of life through the domain of products, systems and environments. In the words of Victor Papaneck (1971),

Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men”

Understanding the diverse human needs becomes the starting point for designers to create environments accessible for all.

The current built environment scenario thus calls for an urgent need of rethinking about the approach to be adopted to have safe, convenient and better built environments.

Understanding Universal Design

Knowledge from both practice and research demonstrates that what is best for one person is not necessarily best for someone else. Although the term Universal Design is often used as a synonym for accessible design, it is actually very different in a fundamental way. Universal design is not a euphemism for familiar conceptions of accessibility. Rather, it involves a fundamental shift in thinking about design, particularly with regard to designing for people with disabilities. Whereas Universal design seeks to infuse accessibility into the design of objects and spaces marketed to general public. Traditional design approaches add accessibility to otherwise inaccessible objects and standard designs. Universal design is based on the premise that buildings and products can and should be designed to be usable by a broader segment of the population.

Ronald Mace, an architect from North Carolina, USA had coined this term. He moved beyond the code oriented approach of the barrier free legislation to the more inclusive orientation of good design for all people. The Universal design approach seeks to integrate the accommodation of disability with the basic concept of design, by sensitizing the environment to the broadest possible range of bodily shapes, dimensions and movements. It is not a new style or a new movement in design. It is a design approach, which addresses an increasingly felt human need. It is a social movement primarily concerned with making products, environments and communication systems usable to the greatest extent possible by the broadest spectrum of users.

Universal design routinely implies that universally designed objects and spaces are means to more than just greater independence. It does away with the ‘them’ and ‘us’ distinctions inherent in the conventional approaches. It is based on the premise that buildings and products can and should be designed to be usable by a broader segment of population. As a result, universal design promotes accessibility on a broader scale than do conventional approaches to accessibility.

Universal design requires that an inclusive and pluralistic model be adopted in which design for differences is a key strategy (Steinfeld, 1996). The anthropometric and biomechanical characteristic of the population forms the basis to predict a universal design system for a space. Thus, to achieve universal design in any broad based way, detailed information of the socially excluded, persons with disabilities and poorly integrated people is necessary.

Principles of Universal Design
It has been said that good universal design is invisible! It aspires to create one environment usable by everyone. These principles have been developed to provide guidance to designers as well as to promote the concept. The key principles that form the guiding lines of universal design are as follows:

1. Simple and Intuitive Use: The use of design is easy to understand regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or concentration levels.

2. Equitable use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.

3. Perceptible Information : The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

4. Tolerance for error : The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental and unintended fatigue.

5. Flexibility in use : The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

6. Low Physical Effort : The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum fatigue.

7. Size and Space for approach and use : Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.

universal design principles 2846

The principles of Universal design are important, and potentially progressive, in seeking to restore disabled people’s self esteem, dignity and independence, while encouraging the development and implementation of user ‘ friendly design. Being humanitarian in its approach, universal design is accepted as one of the most progressive concepts of design.

The Indian Context
India is a melting pot of diverse cultures, thoughts, religions and philosophies. Universal Design as an idea is not a new to Indian Culture. It has always been present in the Indian history in variety of forms. For e.g. Indian dhoti (for men) and Saree (for women) are unique examples of Indian dresses exhibiting the One size fit All approach. dhoti and saree example 2846Universal Design can thus be considered as an extension of the above approach from clothing to products, built environment spaces and systems.

Demographically speaking, India accounts for one-third of the world’s disabled population and one-half of the world’s blind population. It is also estimated that these figures are increasing. Though, an accurate census is difficult owing to huge and illiterate rural populations, the total population of persons with disabilities is projected as 70 million. Above all, the aging scenario indicates a projection of 177 million elderly people by the year 2025.

The Indian context of development presents a challenge about how the built environment takes care of the weakest links in the chain, on the participation of which will depend, the overall growth of the nation. Universal design which probably has been the guiding philosophy of the past needs an immediate presence so that the diverse mix of urban and rural populations are able to access the built environments and participate in the very venture of life.

Philosophically speaking,

‘The problem is not how to wipe out all differences, but how to unite with all
differences intact”

– RabindraNath Tagore


The future of Indian built environments depends on the policy of planning and design it adopts today. A high degree of awareness and will to implement universal design features amongst design professionals, developers and policy makers can only induce the accessibility component as an integral part of our built environments. Though the concept of accessibility and barrier free environments has begun to take shape, the journey of universal design from a conceptual idea to a tangible application in India is yet to show its presence. It thus, becomes necessary for the Indian designers, architects and planners to address this issue at varied forums to catalyze the implementation process.

Even though individuals with impairments and professionals alike recognize the importance of the environment, the research community and policy makers have not given it the attention it deserves. Examples of successful implementation of universal design from the West like Curitiba have already set the guiding paths to follow. There’s an urgent need to develop standardized yet flexible solutions for Indian built environments. ‘The nation’s progress towards meeting the four goals viz. equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self sufficiency is dependent on successful policy intervention in a highly interactive process between environment and the persons with disabilities. Let the dream an integrated environment through the principles of universal design be realized.

indian concept to universal design 2846 The Indian Belief as an Experience of Universal Design

To know more about Universal Design or how it benefits all, please visit our website http://accessability.co.in or write to us at [email protected]

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