Universal Design

Universal Design

Universal Design is one of the top-of-the-list topics when it comes to accessibility and design.



Let’s first define Universal Design before we get into its specifics.

Design is a form or design which ensures that people with varying physical abilities can approach, access, and use a space or product with maximal usability and accessibility.

The exact definition provided by the Disability Act of 2005 is:

  1. The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used
    1. To the greatest possible extent
    2. In the most independent and natural manner possible
    3. In the widest possible range of situations
    4. Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
  2. Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

(Adopted from Centers for Excellence in Universal Design)


The interesting thing about Universal Design is that its goal is not just for those with medical conditions, it is intended to make life simpler and more accessible for anyone and everyone. In essence, when designing something to be more accessible for someone with a physical limitation, any potential user will have an easier time accessing it as well. One of the typical examples given is that of the automatic electronic doors. Although they are generally installed with someone with a physical disability in mind, they will help those who are pushing a stroller, shopping cart or suitcase through the doors as well.



Now, let’s discuss a drop of history just to get a perspective on why and how the concept of design emerged and how it affects society today. For those of you who don’t love history, hang in there, this section will be short and to the point:)

The concept of Universal Design emerged in the 20th century as a result of the increased number of individuals with physical disabilities. 

You may wonder why there was an increase in the amount of people with disabilities?

There are 2 main reasons given…

       1- Average length on lifespan increased.

This means that more people live longer; but also with more physical limitations as they age.

       2- The World Wars left people with physical disabilities.

Due to all of this, the seed was planted for this new concept of easing the access and use of spaces and products for everyone in all capacities. 



In 1997, the 7 Principles of Universal Design were created giving clear guidelines for those designing spaces and products who would like to incorporate usability and accessibility. Again the Centers for Excellence in Universal Design provides and excellent guide with the principles.

Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Would benefit and be appealing to anyone without stigmatizing those with a disability.

For example: automatic doors


Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Would be usable by both right-handed and left-handed individuals.

For example: right vs left handed scissors

Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Would be usable for those with varying levels of literacy skills.

For example: pictorial instructions

Perceptible Information

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

Would be presented in different modes of communication (pictoral, verbal, tactile) and/or with high contrast for important information.

For example: braille signs

Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Would help prevent errors and allow for correction of errors.

For example: the ‘undo’ button

Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortable and with a minimum of fatigue.

Would minimize physical effort and repetitive actions allowing users to maintain neutral body positions.

For example: lever door handles

Size and Space for Approach and Use

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

Would provide adequate space for those using assistive devices as well as accessible for a seated user.

For example: roll under sinks with knee clearance



Those are the 7 principles. I hope it was an educational and easy read to give you a basic perspective on Universal Design.

The most important and applicable time to implement these principles is when you are remodeling or building a living space. Even if everyone in the home is currently in complete physical health, we can never know what the future will bring so it’s always good to plan ahead! It is therefore highly recommended to ask about and research architects, builders and contractors who are familiar with and incorporate these principles in their design plans.

Oftentimes, to implement these principles will not cost much extra if incorporated in the initial plans, but can potentially cost a whole lot if a space would need to be remodeled at a later date to accommodate someone with a physical disability. And, most important to keep in mind, the nice thing about Universal Design is that it can look beautiful and not handicap stigmatizing at all. Take a look at some of the following pictures which are beautiful kitchens and bathrooms which are Universal Design-friendly.


That’s that for Universal Design!

As always, feel free to contact us with comments or questions.

To safe and happy homes,


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