Universal Design: Creating inclusion for everyone

4 September 2014 | Posted In: #122 Spring 2014, Ageing, Disability Services, Planning and Built Environment Issues, Planning for People and Social Issues, Universal Design, | Author: Jane Bringolf

Designing products and environments for the whole community seems a simple idea but there has been a slow uptake in creating this inclusion in Australia. Jane Bringolf explains the principles of universal design and explores some myths preventing its wider acceptance in housing and public spaces.


Why do people trip over shower hobs, stumble over thresholds, stub their toe at the bathroom door, get their luggage stuck in an automatic gate, catch their sleeve on a door knob, struggle up steps with strollers and shopping trolleys, camp out in the living room for a month because they can’t get upstairs, or break their heel on a grating?  Why can’t people find a toilet when they need it, remember where they parked the car, turn on the tap or open a blister pack?

What is universal design?

Universal design is a simple idea: it is a proposition that products and environments should be designed with the whole population in mind. It is a design process that seeks to improve human performance, maintain wellness, and encourage social participation and interaction.  Designing universally creates things that are easier to use by the widest number of people recognising that diversity is a key part of being human.

At first glance designing universally seems reasonable – why exclude people by design? After all, the more people who can use an item, the more there are to purchase or use it. While universal design is considered a ‘good idea’ by many, this has been insufficient to change design processes in any significant way. The question is, why?  But first, a little background.

The notion of universal design is not new; the term was coined in the mid-1970s when wheelchair-users advocating for barrier-free environments realised that barrier-free designs were good for everyone.  Other groups found barrier-free environments useful: parents with prams and small children, older people, pregnant women, and people of short stature, among others.  It creates places and spaces that are welcoming for locals and visitors alike.  It was from this realisation that the Center for Universal Design was set up within the North Carolina State University in the late 1980s. Since that time other countries have set up similar centres and the universal design movement is now a global endeavour, and the concept has been expanded to include product design, information and communications technology, and learning strategies.  However, Australia is lagging behind in this regard.

Principles of Universal Design in brief

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive to use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use


Accessible, Adaptable, or Universal?

Accessible public domain

Accessible public domain

One of the issues for those who’d like to see greater uptake of universal design is mistaken identity.  The term ‘universal design’ is not understood in the same way by everyone.  A range of terms are used alongside and in place of it: accessible, adaptable, seniors, and even ‘disabled’ design, and we can add universal access to the list as well.

Each of these terms has a specific meaning in the construction industry because they relate to certain standards or regulations.  However, all these terms get thrown together and used interchangeably because they are seen as being specifically for older people and people with disability.

‘Accessible’ relates to access and mobility standards for public buildings and multi-dwelling developments.  These are referenced by the National Construction Code (formerly the Building Code of Australia). ‘Adaptable’ relates to housing design and the Adaptable Housing Standard is variously applied to what is often called ‘Seniors Housing’.  ‘Disabled’ is unfortunately wrongly applied to features such as ramps, entrances, toilets and parking places.  They are usually functional and not disabled in the strict definition of the word, so they should be labelled accessible.  However, architectural drawings often contain labels of ‘disabled toilets’ and ‘disability ramp’ and so the language of exclusion continues to be perpetuated – the language applied to ‘the others’.

The one term that covers everyone is universal design, as its purpose is to be mainstream design.  In Europe it is called ‘design for all’ and this is an apt description and translates well.  Nevertheless, some things are better understood by what they are not, and universal design falls into that category.  This is because there are very few ways of explaining the concept of inclusion without listing who is excluded.

While ‘accessible’ designs relate mainly to public environments, ‘adaptable’ designs relate specifically to housing. The Adaptable Housing Standard was devised in 1995 and has not been revised since.  Many local councils call up this voluntary Standard for ‘seniors’ developments as it is a recognised Standards Australia document.  This is in spite of some features being costly, difficult to achieve, or inappropriate as design ideas have moved on over the last 20 years.  The good news is that a more workable document has been devised for housing, the Livable Housing Design Guidelines produced by Livable Housing Australia.  The Guidelines are underpinned by universal design principles and incorporate the most important accessible and adaptable features.

Livable Housing Design

Paths that suit all users (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf) Bicycles don’t like stairs either (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf) Glazed doors and low sills help to connect the inside with the outside (Image courtesy Landcom)

Paths that suit all users (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf)
Bicycles don’t like stairs either (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf)
Glazed doors and low sills help to connect the inside with the outside (Image courtesy Landcom)

The aim of the Livable Housing Australia is that all new housing should be designed to the Guidelines so that the features eventually become mainstream.  These guidelines acknowledge that we cannot keep building homes that do not support people who want to stay put as they age or acquire a disability, and that we cannot continue to fund home modifications from the public purse for everyone that needs it.

The Livable Housing Design Guidelines have seven core elements:

  • A safe continuous and step free path of travel from the street entrance and / or parking area to a dwelling entrance that is level
  • At least one, level (step-free) entrance into the dwelling
  • Internal doors and corridors that facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces
  • A toilet on the ground (or entry) level that provides easy access
  • A bathroom that contains a hobless (step-free) shower recess
  • Reinforced walls around the toilet, shower and bath to support the safe installation of grabrails at a later date
  • A continuous handrail on one side of any stairway where there is a rise of more than one metre

For extra convenience consider the following:

  • Sufficient space in the bedroom to allow someone with a wheeled walking aid to get around the bed and reach the wardrobe space
  • Kitchens with drawer storage instead of cupboards for easy access to everything and space to manoeuvre with a mobility device
  • Colour contrast between walls and floors, and kitchen benches and floors to aid with visual perception
  • Switches and controls at heights that minimise bending and reaching
  • Lever handles and D handles for easy grasping, and power points around knee height to save bending to skirting boards
  • In two storey homes, consider creating space for a through-floor lift which can be installed at a later date (at around the cost of the stamp duty when selling a home)

Myths and misunderstandings

Universally designed bathrooms do not need to look institutional. (Image courtesy Landcom) Level access from the footpath to the front door makes life easier for everyone. (Image courtesy Landcom) Homebush fountains in Sydney are easily accessible. (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf)

Universally designed bathrooms do not need to look institutional. (Image courtesy Landcom)
Level access from the footpath to the front door makes life easier for everyone. (Image courtesy Landcom)
Homebush fountains in Sydney are easily accessible. (Image courtesy Dr Jane Bringolf)

We can talk about designing for all people regardless of age, capability or background – but this concept is then framed within current experience which is to start thinking about those who are most often excluded, older people, and people with disability. Consequently, it becomes ‘disabled’ design in the minds of the uninitiated.  When this happens, people then start to think of specialised designs – those separate ramped entrances, separate toilets and parking places all labelled ‘disabled’.  For older people, thoughts turn to specialised and segregated living units and special ‘seniors’ events and centres.  This in turn creates myths and misunderstandings – here are just five myths.

Myth number 1: Only a few people would benefit, so we should not let their needs dictate.  This myth derives from the notion that only wheelchair users benefit.  However, anyone with wheels (bicycle, pram, trolley, luggage, or briefcase) has difficulty with paths of travel with steps and other obstacles. In addition, almost everyone will experience some form of disability in their lifetime, so while they may not need it now, they are most likely to need it in the future.

Myth number 2: Disability discrimination laws and associated standards are sufficient and so there is no need to do any more. These standards and regulations only address physical function in the public built environment whereas universal design also considers housing, the way people interpret information, use products and services, access information technology and access education services.

Myth number 3: Medical advances are reducing the incidence of disability, so the need for universal design will be short lived.  Unfortunately, sporting accidents and other types of accidents are on the rise. This is occurring in tandem with population ageing, where more people are expected to experience disability and reduced functioning as they grow older.

Myth number 4: Universal design costs even more than accessible design. If buildings are usable by everyone from the start then fewer renovations would be needed in the future, and any that were would be less expensive.  Many features cost nothing, or are marginal at worst. Additionally, these features tend to have a value that exceeds their expense.

Myth number 5: Universal design is unattractive, no-one wants their home to look like a hospital. This myth is closely linked to notions of ‘disability’ design and a view that bathrooms need to look like accessible public toilets with lots of grab rails. There is no need to install grab rails in homes.  However, reinforcement in bathroom walls is a good idea in case grab rails are needed at another time.

The other misunderstanding is that universal design is a one-size-fits-all solution and therefore fits no-one. If we go back to the underpinning philosophy – inclusion -then there will be times when parallel solutions will be required. ATMs and public telephones at different heights are good examples. Designing universally challenges designers to be creative: it is not a process for limiting design. Some of the most useable products for everyone have come from this design challenge where users are put at the centre of the design process.  A good example is the Oxo Good Grips range of kitchen utensils.

A paradigm shift

Designing with the whole population in mind, not a section or sections of the population, requires a paradigm shift in design thinking because designers in all disciplines are taught to design either for a mythical normal population, or for specific niche groups. When creating a new product or building, designers should consider walking, balance, handling, pulling, pushing, lifting, reaching, physical stamina and strength to perform some actions. However, universal design will not overcome all physical and sensory limitations and this is where specific technologies and products are needed for individuals. Put simply, a wheelchair is of little use when confronted with a flight of steps, and a ramped entrance is of little use to a paraplegic without a wheelchair – we need both universal design and assistive technology.


Images of universally designed environments are difficult to find and this is likely because a well-designed environment is seamless, so no special features stand out.  Universal design is around us – we only notice when it is not there – when we have to lift the baby stroller or the suitcase at the train station to negotiate the steps, for example.  Almost all shopping malls and shop entries within the mall are universally designed – everyone can enter with level access and automatic doors.  Seating is usually placed at suitable intervals so that people can rest, there are toilets and elevators everyone can use, parking nearby, and signage for finding our way.  Some of these features may not be best practice in all cases, but compared to most street shopping precincts, shopping malls offer greater convenience and ease of use for everyone.  Even so, entering your PIN into the EFTPOS device might be difficult if you have reduced hand function.

But where to from here?  Australia is falling behind other developed nations in applying universal design principles across the full spectrum of design endeavours.  Countries in Europe, UK, Ireland, India, Brazil and United States all have centres dedicated to educating, promoting and implementing the principles of universal design. In some countries universal design is a key element of their building code – Singapore is a good example. These are countries that recognise that social and economic inclusion has an individual and societal benefit.  The more inclusive we become, the more previously excluded groups can participate in social and economic life: to get an education, a job, a home, and make a contribution to society and the economy.

Key elements of universal design to consider in public places and spaces:

  • A continuous path of travel along the street with footpaths containing no steps or overhanging shrubs and trees, and with gently sloping kerb ramps at every crossing point
  • Pedestrian crossings with refuge islands wide enough to take a mobility scooter or two people with wheeled walking devices or a baby stroller
  • Good wayfinding signals with signage that has good colour contrast and simple lettering (not fancy or heritage style)
  • Public toilets that are clean and useable and placed at suitable places
  • Seating for resting and also placed to encourage informal social interaction
  • Lighting, not just at night, but in places that highlight signage or notices so that people can see and read them
  • Information about transport that is in a size and font that people with low vision can read

 A centre for universal design

A good example of a centre for universal design is in Ireland, the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design – www.universaldesign.ie.  It was set up in 2007 as a result of Ireland signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Australia signed at the same time. To ensure Ireland could fulfil its obligations under the Convention, they set up the centre with a statutory role to promote the achievement of excellence in universal design in the built environment, product design, and information and communications technologies.  The centre also has a role in developing and promoting standards, education and professional development, and raising awareness of universal design.

Now is the time for Australia to have a similar centre to encourage designers to think more inclusively about the design of our housing, open spaces and public buildings. The aim of the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) is to enable people living with disability to achieve their social and economic potential, but many of our built environments pose time consuming inconveniences and outright obstructions to achieving this aim. Older people wish to stay put in their own home rather than move to institutional and specialised and segregated housing.  Policies of ageing in place must be supported by policies that encourage continued social activity and participation, so that older people can get out and about, and continue to contribute socially and economically.

We already have universal design in housing in the sense that doors, windows, walls and roofs are all universal to every dwelling.  What we don’t have are a few design adjustments that would make the doorways, hallways and rooms more accessible.  Architects and designers who understand the principles of universal design say that incorporating these features cost little more, if anything, to include in standard housing designs.  However, the mass market house building companies have continued to resist the call for universal design in housing citing cost as the main reason.  When challenged and asked to specify the costs, they move to talking about steep sloping sites.  However these are in the minority and are rare in new greenfield developments.  The argument seems to be that if it can’t be done in all sites then it can’t be done anywhere.  Nevertheless, industry has the skills and experience to create universally designed dwellings. The experience comes from applying the Adaptable Housing Standard to ‘seniors’ dwellings over the last ten years or so.  These homes have level entries, suitably sized bathrooms and well organised kitchens.  These features just need to be applied to all dwellings.

Healthy built environments

While universal design proponents agree with the notion of healthy built environments, it should not be at the expense of inclusion.  Healthy built environments are not just about minimising obesity, but about encouraging people of all ages and abilities to get out and about and enjoy public spaces and places.  Hence, the recommendation of the deliberate placement of steps as an inducement to engage in exercise during active travel is problematic for people who cannot climb steps.

Steps will discourage and even prevent some people from utilising these spaces. Existing degenerative conditions, health issues, reduced mobility and parents with baby strollers are all compromised.  Consideration should also be given to people moving around in family or friendship groups where the abilities of individuals may vary considerably.  Consequently, the principle of equitable access for people with disability, which is part of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is at risk of being compromised if one member has to take a different path of travel to a separate ramp because of the steps.  Exercise and getting out and about on a level pathway is better than no exercise at all. Inclusively designed environments will ensure everyone gets a fair go at exercise.

Dr Jane Bringolf is a member of the City of Sydney Inclusion (Disability) Advisory Panel and is currently working for COTA NSW on Age Friendly Liveable Communities. COTA is the peak body representing people over 50. Jane chaired the organizing committee of the inaugural Universal Design Conference in Sydney in August 2014. She has previous community sector experience in Mid North Coast Regional Council for Social Development, neighbourhood centres and Home Care.

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