3 Design Approaches Used to Keep Disabilities in Mind: Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Accessibility

Design Approaches

3 Design Approaches Used to Keep Disabilities in Mind: Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Accessibility

I’m going to go over three different design methods or approaches that designers can use to help them determine if a design will work for someone with a disability.

Think for a second about the last time that you felt like you were being excluded from a design or service. It wasn’t made for you. And maybe you got frustrated because you wanted to be able to do something, but it just simply wasn’t made for you.

The most recent experience I recall is being in the kitchen trying to cook some food.

It was really frustrating because I can’t reach all the cupboards because I’m 5 ft. 5 in. which is considered average height for a woman.

And so I have a stool that I have sitting next to my fridge, where I have to use it on a daily basis in order to reach all the cupboard space. Now I try to keep as much stuff as I can in the shelves that I can reach without a stool, but simply I just can’t keep it all there. And so using the stool is my way to adapt, or use a tool to help me be able to have more cupboard space.

Now let’s think about this example for your second, would it be okay for me to want to be able to access all my cupboards without having to use a stool?

Would this be even possible for so many varying different heights of people?

Or is it okay for me to just adapt and for people who are designing these cupboards to create the cupboards for people who are of average height?

This is really a question that designers should be asking themselves every day.

And today I’m going to go over three different design methods or approaches that designers can use to help them determine if a design will work for someone with a disability, or even for varying ages height, or any kind of demographic that really is varying.

The three approaches that I’ll be talking about today are universal design, inclusive design, and accessibility design.

And I’ll go over how they’re similar and what makes them different from each other, and how we might determine when it’s best to use any of these methods.

Universal Design

So first, let’s talk about universal design. This was a method that was created in 1997 by a group of architects and designers who wanted to make their buildings more accessible to people with disabilities.

Although universal design was originally intended for Architecture and Environmental Design, these principles can be applied to any type of project that you would be working on.

The idea of universal design is that anyone can use the intended design how it was intended, and they don’t have to find a way to adapt to use it.

Universal design is really focused on the final product or the final design and making sure that that will work for everyone.

And isn’t necessarily worry about throughout the design process. As long as the final design works, then it’s great.

A good example of universal design is motion sensor lights. Regardless of your ability, anyone can use a motion sensor light, even if you don’t have mobility in your hand, you don’t have to be able to flip the light on. If you’re blind, you don’t have to go and trail the wall and try to find the light switch. If you’re in a wheelchair, and it can be hard for you to reach the light switch, that’s not going to make a difference. Anyone can walk into the room and the light will automatically turn on. And you won’t have to do anything to activate that other than entering a room.

In contrast, we also have smart lights that can be activated by your voice, maybe using Siri, Alexa, or Google. But if you can’t talk or you can’t hear, then this would become difficult for you to be able to do. And so this is why motion sensor light is more of a universal design then talking to a device and having them turn on the lights for you.

And while using voice activated light turning on can help a lot of people including people who are visually impaired, it doesn’t help everyone.

Inclusive Design

The next design approach is inclusive design. Inclusive design really focuses on the process and not the final result and being able to make sure groups that are being excluded within the design process are being considered.

Now as I mentioned universal design focuses on making a design work for everyone. Whereas inclusive design is focusing on a group of people and trying to make a design work for a wider range of people.

And not just the average person, this doesn’t mean it necessarily will work for all people, but it is considering other people in your design process to hopefully create a design that will work for more people.

A good example of inclusive design is curb cuts. on a street corner, you see the little dip that makes a gradual transition into the street, and then also back up onto the next sidewalk. curb cuts were originally designed to help people in wheelchairs, so they wouldn’t have access to go up and down streets without having to have a ramp or some type of way to adapt.

Curb cuts can also be super helpful for people with strollers or people who can’t lift their legs up as high, who might be older or have some type of mobility disability.

And so these curb cuts can really help a lot of people. But in the design process, they were thinking about people who were in wheelchairs originally, and now it helps a wider range of people than they originally were intending.

Now, one thing that wasn’t considered when curb cuts were originally created was people who are visually impaired, including those who were using canes to help them get around.

Now they first found that when they created the curb cuts, that people who were blind, were going into the streets without even realizing because it was so gradual of a transition, that they would use a cane to go down, but they wouldn’t even notice that they were in the street all of a sudden.

This is when the raised tactile pavement dots that you see on the streets recreated. The people who created curb cuts weren’t necessarily thinking about this issue when they created the curb cuts for people in wheelchairs.

Accessibility Design

The third design approach is accessibility design. This is probably the one that most people are familiar with.

So some good examples would be Braille being added to anything. So it makes people who are visually impaired who know Braille have access to read text, they they wouldn’t necessarily be able to read with their eyes.

Or another example would be closed captioning being added to video for people who are hard of hearing so that they can watch a video and still know what’s happening without having to hear it.

A third example of accessibility is adding a ramp to existing stairs or shutters so that someone in a wheelchair can access it.

For the most part accessibility design is a tool that’s used on an existing design to help adapt it and make that design work for people who can’t access that design from its original intent.

Sometimes it can feel like an afterthought, and isolate people who have disabilities, because they’re using a design in a different way than it was originally intended, or the average person is using it. And it can be frustrating to constantly have to find ways to adapt designs to make them work for you because you weren’t fit to use them.

Sometimes accessibility design has to be used because there’s really just no other option. And it does help people be able to have access to something that they didn’t have before multiple approaches.

Now, you might be wondering if it’s possible for a design to fit into more than one of these approaches?

And the answer is yes.

So I kind of think about these three different approaches being a Venn diagram, whereas the three circles where there’s overlap, and there’s parts where they don’t overlap.

If you think about the parts that have two different approaches that are overlapping a couple of examples would be a desk that has the ability to higher or lower the desk height. So whether you want to be a standing desk, a sitting desk, if you’re in a wheelchair, and maybe your seat is a little higher than a typical seat, you can adjust it for that, or any other reason why you might want to be able to adjust the height of a desk. But that also was created to help people in wheelchairs originally, and now people use it all the time to help them adapt. So it’s a design that can help anyone.

A second example would be email. Email was originally created by someone who was hard of hearing because phones existed and people would talk to each other on the phone back in the day, but they didn’t have a quick way to communicate other than snail mail, or maybe even a telegram. Now as we all know, we all use email on a regular basis, and what would we do without the design of email?

But this design was tailored originally for people who are hard of hearing and now everyone uses it.

Another example is a ramp on a bus. It is a crossover inclusive design and accessibility design because it was originally designed to help people in wheelchairs so that they could have full access to a bus. Like any other average person who isn’t in a wheelchair, but it’s an accessibility tool because it is hidden until someone requests to use it.

A great example of all three approaches overlapping would be an accessibility button that’s on the outside of a building.

Accessibility buttons were originally designed for people in wheelchairs to help give them access to buildings, because it can be very difficult to maneuver your wheelchair and also open the door at the same time.

It’s accessibility tool because it helps people in wheelchairs be able to access the building, when maybe they wouldn’t be able to without this aid.

I get asked a lot if I think one of these approaches is better than the other.

And I think that the answer is that they all have a time and a place, and they can be used in different situations.

If designers can understand these approaches, and when it’s appropriate to use them, then this will really increase the amount of times that people with disabilities will have access to designs.

For me, I usually try to prioritize inclusive design. Because if I can make a design work for someone that is being excluded currently, and it can also be used by more people, and that’s a win for me.

I also understand that accessibility design can be a good tool to have under our belts, and maybe it can be a good temporary solution until we can take the time to find a design that will work for everyone or for a wider range of people.