Universal Design, Accessibility, and Designing Spaces for Everyone

I’ve been thinking a lot about universal design lately. For those unfamiliar with the concept, universal design is basically the idea of designing spaces to be universally accessible; both in a disability sense, and generally speaking. Design for everyone, as it were. And that includes physical spaces as well as virtual ones, from bus terminals to websites.

I was thinking about this in the context of how many people think of disability in very limited ways, and how when people talk about disability and accessibility, they usually mean ‘ramps.’ They mean ‘for wheelchairs.’ Which is only the very tip of the surface when it comes to accessibility; in fact, ramps alone are not all that wheelchair users need, for starters. But there are so many other things that can be barriers to accessibility, from the positioning of the light switches to the way the kitchen is ventilated.

What I like about universal design is that instead of thinking of disability as an afterthought, as something extra, as additional work, it conceives of accessibility as integral to a space. And it thinks about how to design spaces to grow with their users, how to design spaces people can live in for their whole lives. Age in. Because something that happens with a lot of people with disabilities and older adults in the United States especially is that they are relegated to warehouses and forced out of their communities, and one of the reasons for that is that they are unable to stay in their homes, for a variety of reasons, of which accessibility is one.

Universal design operates under the assumption that people want to stay in their communities and that they want homes and businesses that grow with them and evolve to suit their needs. And, by designing a generally accessible space, there’s also a lot of resale value. And there’s rarely having to worry about whether guests can navigate the space. And there’s knowing that when your body changes and when you change, your house will still be your home.

I say generally because it’s important to acknowledge the role of conflicting accommodations and needs, another issue that often gets elided in conversations about accessibility. As soon as people consider the fact that accessibility is so much more than the ramp, they decide that dealing with conflicting accommodations is too hard, or they don’t know they exist. Simple example; visual alert fire alarms for d/Deaf folks. Which are great, unless you have epilepsy. Ok, so, slow the strobe down so it doesn’t trigger seizures. Except that flashing lights can be problems for people with other sensory processing issues. What do you do? (What about designing an adjustable strobe, and allowing the user to select the safest and most appropriate setting?)

I like the idea that, when designing a new space, the space should be made as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, taking into account issues like conflicting accommodations and the needs of the designer as well as the other users, in a space where the designer interacts with the space after completion. I like the idea that, rather than adding accessibility on, accessibility should just be included, second nature, a natural extension of designing the space. I like the ideas embedded in universal design, that part of making people welcome involves creating spaces where they don’t have to ask for accommodations, where the space will accommodate them without it needing to be made into an issue.

Talking with a contractor recently, I was discussing simple ways of integrating universal design into homebuilding. Little things. A ramp instead of a just one step door. Lowering light switches. Not having split levels in a structure. Having grab bars in the bathroom, actual grab bars, not towel racks disguising themselves, and how to integrate them into a space aesthetically. A roll in shower/tub. Making things adjustable. Little things. Things that are pretty easy to implement in the design phases, as opposed to things that are costly to put in after the fact. Little things that say ‘people with disabilities are welcome here. Children are welcome here. Older adults are welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.’

People often say that society isn’t accessible because we aren’t out in public and we don’t use public resources and people don’t see us. That’s because society isn’t accessible. When everywhere you go, you are made to feel unwelcome, you tend not to go places. When you are reminded that you are an object of fear, that some people think your disabilities are a punishment for sin, there’s no real reason to want to interact with the general public.

People should not have to ask for accessibility. Accommodations should and can be provided effortlessly, and they would be, in a world where people wanted to make us welcome in public. I should never have to call a restaurant to see if a friend can get in the front door, I should never have to grill a potential landlord before even setting foot on a property, I should never have to wonder if I will be out with a friend and unable to find a bathroom when it’s urgently and immediately needed.

The fact that accessibility is only accomplished by asking, repeatedly, in increasingly strident terms, the fact that people with disabilities are tasked with making accessibility happen, with expending energy on creating accessibility, with providing free consulting services so people don’t have to pay a person who actually specialises in accessibility consulting, well, that’s why we’re not out in public more. Because it couldn’t be made more abundantly clear that we are undesirable in public, our ‘needs’ are ‘special,’ and it’s just too much work for a handful of crips, anyway.