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We appreciate your interests in Universal Design, a global movement of inclusive design practice initiated at NC State University College of Design. The Center for Universal Design is currently not active due to funding challenges. We are working to revive the Center, hopefully in the near future. We are unable at this time to provide assistance to your design inquiries.

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A Perspective on Universal Design

Excerpt of a presentation made by Ronald L. Mace, FAIA, at “Designing for the 21st Century: An International Conference on Universal Design,” June 19, 1998, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.

Title and text Edited by Jan Reagan for publication, August 1998.


I am going to use this time today to respond to a number of questions I am repeatedly asked about universal design. In doing so, I hope to provide you with a perspective—my perspective—on universal design.

One of the things I am often asked by experienced and new people in this field is my feeling about the terminology, the definitions, and the differences between barrier-free design, universal design, and assistive technology. First, I think it’s important that we know the differences between these three things so we can go out and help industry and other people understand some of the subtle but important distinctions between them. When they get muddled, the message becomes vague.

Barrier-free Design

Barrier-free design is what we used to call the issue of access. It is predominantly a disability-focused movement. Removing architectural barriers through the building codes and regulations is barrier-free design. The ADA Standards are barrier-free design because they focus on disability and accommodating people with disabilities in the environment. In fact, the ADA is the now the issue of access in this country.

So, what is the difference between barrier-free and universal? ADA is the law, but the accessibility part, the barrier-free design part, is only a portion of that law. This part, however, is the most significant one for design because it mandates what we can do and facilitates the promotion of universal design. But, it is important to realize and remember that ADA is not universal design. I hear people mixing it up, referring to ADA and universal design as one in the same. This is not true.

Universal Design

Universal design broadly defines the user. It’s a consumer market driven issue. Its focus is not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people. It actually assumes the idea, that everybody has a disability and I feel strongly that that’s the case. We all become disabled as we age and lose ability, whether we want to admit it or not. It is negative in our society to say “I am disabled” or “I am old.” We tend to discount people who are less than what we popularly consider to be “normal.” To be “normal” is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of “normal.” This just is not the case.

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Assistive Technology

Now, assistive technology to me is really personal use devices—those things focused on the individual—things that compensate or help one function with a disability. Many of you wear eyeglasses because you have limited sight. The assistive technology is your eyeglasses. We could legitimately say that everybody who wears eyeglasses has a disability.

Another example of assistive technology is my wheelchair. I need it as an individual. It is not a consumer product. It’s for me. It’s an assistive technology device. The oxygen system I use is also assistive technology. It’s not aesthetic or very marketable. How many of you want to carry one of these things around every day? This is not a consumer product.

Assistive technology really started in the medical industry with durable medical equipment. Here, again, people needing equipment are discounted as whole people. We are considered to be patients. We should be grateful to have an oxygen system that keeps us breathing or a wheelchair that provides mobility. Whether or not the product looks nice, is easy to live with, or is available at a marketable price is unimportant to those developing and providing it.

So, if you could separate barrier-free, universal, and assistive technology distinctly, they would look like this: assistive technology is devices and equipment we need to be functional in the environment; barrier-free, ADA, and building codes are disability mandates; and universal design is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user that encourages attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. The reality, however, is that the three blend and move into each other. I will talk more about this later.

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What exactly is Universal Design?

At this point, I would like to talk more about universal design and show some examples.

One example I use to explain the difference between universal design and ADA is a hotel I visited that was ADA-compliant. The ADA requires a certain number of rooms have accessible features that make them more universally usable for wheelchair users. In this hotel, there were accessible rooms on each floor, and, interestingly, they were the same room (e.g., 503, 603, 703) all the way up through the tower. Because of this, all accessible rooms provided only for left-handed transfers onto the toilet. The ADA does not require left-handed and right-handed rooms so, this hotel was in compliance. It was not, however, universally usable. I couldn’t stay in this hotel because I make a right-handed transfer and can’t use a left-handed room.

It’s these kinds of subtleties that universal design can, should, and does address. Think about it. Anyone else staying in that hotel can find a room that is left-handed or right-handed. A common practice in the industry is to have rooms back up to each other, thus providing left- and right-handed rooms. Why can’t the same practice be applied to accessible rooms?

I have never seen a building or facility I would say is universally usable. I don’t know that it’s possible to create one. I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable. It’s not that there’s a weakness in the term. We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, something people can live with and afford.

We can make anything more universally usable, but to do that, we must pay attention to details. Sometimes it’s merely the placement of an item or an element that makes the difference. Offset controls are mandated by the ADA for bathtubs, showers and other fixtures. This simply involves taking the same control and moving it over so it is easier to reach—not a difficult thing to think about or do.

Sometimes it’s the shape of something. A door knob, for instance, is not usable by some people. Lever handles, however, are usable by most. It doesn’t cost any more to put it in. It’s just a different shape that makes it more universally usable.

Another detail to consider is the size of something. My favorite example is the wide toilet stall required by the ADA, the so-called “handicapped” stall. To me, this is a nice example of where just making something larger makes it usable by more people. I’ve seen people take baby carriages and luggage into the stall with them. It isn’t safe or smart to park a child or your luggage out in the room. So, it’s really useful to have a larger, universally usable stall.

Some things have to be adjustable or adaptable to be more universally usable. The GE “Real Life” kitchen features an adjustable sink. The mechanism for raising and lowering the sink, once very expensive, is now available at a fairly reasonable cost. Simply press the button and set it to the desired height of the user—high for tall people, low for short or seated people. What wonderful universal use! And, the mechanism can be used on cooktops and counters as well.

Sometimes we find universal design just seems to happen. The redesign of a common drafting lamp is an example. The old drafting lamp has a small slender button on top that must be turned with the fingers to activate the bulb. The button is difficult to turn and requires full use of nimble fingers. In the new design, the entire top of the lamp becomes the control. No fingers are required; the control can easily be turned with a palm, an elbow, a foot, or a fist. What provoked this redesign? Maybe it was styling or the designers liked the way it looked. Whatever the reason, the result is a lamp that is more universally usable.

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The Blending of Barrier-free, Universal, and Assistive Technology

Now, back to products and designs that transition. Remember, I said some barrier-free, universal, and assistive technology blend and move. Here’s an example. Years ago, I bought a listening system for the television for my mother because she was hard of hearing. The specialized system was assistive technology. It included earphones that picked up wireless signals from the TV and allowed her to adjust the volume. Fifteen years ago this device cost $700 and was imported from Germany. Today, you can buy a similar unit for audio files from Radio Shack for $69. Although not necessarily for people who are hard of hearing, it’s exactly the same product. What was introduced as an assistive technology device moved over and became a consumer product. We need to see more of this type of transition.

Going the other way, years ago the X-10 remote control systems came on the market as security devices that allowed you to control lamps all over the house from a keypad by your bed. It’s also a great product for someone who can’t get up and walk down to put out the lights. A consumer product for security made a great little control device for people with disabilities.

Another product that has not moved over yet but will, I think, is the automatic door opener. People put power door operators on garages all the time. You go and easily buy one for $150. So, what is it? Is it a consumer product or assistive technology? I don’t know. I think it’s assistive technology for people who don’t like to admit they have a disability or are lazy. However, like consumer products, it is inexpensive, easy to get, and universally usable. But, when I want to put a power operator on the door of my house, I am told the openers are for commercial applications and are very expensive to configure and install for residential use. This is nonsense. The technology is the same, only the application is different. But, it’s not the “norm.” Because of this, it is assumed the application is more difficult and should cost more! I definitely foresee this application becoming more of a consumer universal product in the future. It would certainly make bringing groceries into the house a lot easier for everybody!.

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Well, my time is up. Once again, I appreciate this opportunity to share my perspective with you. I do believe it is critical for all of us—designers, educators, researchers, advocates—to really understand this relationship between barrier-free, universal, and assistive technology in order to develop and implement truly universally usable designs.

I have been inspired by this conference. It has exceeded my expectations. We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience. Thank you all for your interest and your efforts.

Editor’s Note: Ron Mace passed away on June 29, 1998. This address delivered at “Designing for the 21st Century,” the first international conference on universal design, was his final public presentation on universal access and design, a topic that dear to his heart and the focus of his life’s work for 28 years.

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