A man and a woman in a wheelchair go down a ramp to stroll by the river near a bright city

The Ins and Outs of Universal Design

You may have heard the term “universal design” before, but do you really know what it means? Universal design is when products, buildings, public spaces, and even learning materials are designed in a way that make them accessible to people with a wide range of abilities. Basically, its inclusive design practices that minimizes the need for assistive technology and makes things more usable by everyone!

Products are usually designed to work for the average person but those designed using the principles of universal design benefit a variety of users, not just people with disabilities. For example, sidewalk curb cuts which were designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, also benefits parents with baby strollers, delivery staff with rolling carts, and even kids riding skateboards.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University established seven principles of universal design to provide guidance when planning (1997).

1. Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

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

3. 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.

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

5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

7. 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.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a related, but more specific application, of these principles. UDL provides guidance for creating learning materials that allows all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. These guidelines include multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. Using these guidelines, instructors are able to create materials that make learning inclusive and transformative for everyone.

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