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Universal design is a value-based concept and a tool to include diversity in human abilities as a core parameter in design and planning. The concept can be interpreted as a mindset, a process tool or as a tangible design solution.

by Camilla Ryhl, Head of Research, the Bevica Foundation

Since originally defined, it has been further developed in various contexts and in a dynamic process. It has been written into the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as a core concept and as such it also serves as a potential lever for securing the pledge to Leave No One Behind (LNOB) in the global effort of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Universal design is a dynamic concept needing to be implemented in a context specific approach. To unleash its potential, it is decisive to work across scale, sector, discipline, and process. Prioritizing interdisciplinary collaboration, exchange of experiences, sharing of examples, development of new methods and investigation of research-based knowledge is all crucial to the process of implementing universal design in planning, design and use of our built environment.

American universal design pioneer and architect Ron Mace initially wanted to challenge the idea of a ‘them and us’, ‘disabled and abled’ and instead create a concept that could enhance the understanding of all users living with different and changing abilities throughout a lifespan. He reacted to the existing approach of designing solutions in a fragmented and detailed manner, instead of thinking, process, knowledge, collaboration, values, and complexity.

Universal design can be interpreted and implemented in various ways, and requires different skills, types of knowledge and collaboration. And whether implemented in theory, policy or practice, the work needs to be based on a constant sharing of experiences and innovation. We need to share knowledge and inspire each other. There is not one static or set way of interpreting universal design, and hence it is decisive to seek inspiration and knowledge outside of our own professional framework. Collaboration across disciplines, types of knowledge and experiences, geographical settings, different uses and roles in the building sector and knowledge field. We all need to interact, challenge each other, and collaborate.

Designing, planning, and building the physical framework for our lives is a complex process with many different actors involved. The process itself is highly interdisciplinary, and requires different skills and types of knowledge, as well as consistent communication and collaboration. Universal design does not fall into one aspect of the build environment, but across the entirety of it. When a student goes to college, she needs to get from her home to the bus stop, access the bus as well as exit it. Then she needs to cross the street and get to the building, locate and enter her classroom, participate in class and take her exams. She needs to take part in study trips, lunch in the canteen and social activities.

Securing universal design in this chain of activities spans across different disciplines, policies, and sectors. Her example underlines the complex interdisciplinary relation between planning and design of the built environment and the actual use and experiences of it. The classroom needs to be accessible, as does the pedagogical approach, curricula planning, and the legislation and policies granting her the necessary assistive technology. Securing an inclusive environment and society through universal design is indeed an interdisciplinary process and task. And we need to do it together.


The text was originally published in The Importance of Sharing: Views from KS’ international network for Universal Design 

Also see the KS catalogue of other publications on Universal Design on their webpage