On universal design and accessible design

I have written a great deal here about universal design and accessible design, and recently, my way of framing these issues was questioned, and in a way that I really like. Historically, I’ve relied heavily on the term ‘universal design,’ stressing that the built environment should universally accessible, including not just to disabled people, but to parents, older adults, and everyone who can benefit from things like lowered light switches, wider sidewalks, and the like. I’ve also argued that such design evolves with time and the user, ensuring that as people go through life changes, the design around them changes with them.

But a few months ago, a friend on Twitter brought up an important point: In the trend towards preferring the term ‘universal design,’ we are erasing the need, specifically, for accessibility, and eliding disability from the equation. ‘Accessible design’ has very clear disability policy implications and clearly iterates that spaces need to be accessible to disabled people. ‘Universal design’ is more broad, but also more vague, and it allows people to hide disability away.

One thing that comes up when people talk about universal design, she said, is commentary that such design is beneficial for everyone, just as I mentioned above. But sometimes, she pointed out, such design really is only for disabled people. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay: It’s a reiteration of our basic right to be in society, and it is perfectly reasonable for something to be designed to accommodate disabled people, with no clear or obvious benefits for nondisabled people. That doesn’t make it lesser, nor does it constitute ‘special treatment,’ it’s just a value-neutral component of the built environment.

When we call it what it is, accessible design, we put disability back into the centre of the conversation. We’re saying that disabled people have a right to radical inclusion, to be fully integrated into society, to not have to apologise or make excuses for themselves. We explicitly call out the need for access in design. And that is a good thing, because nondisabled people really like to erase the disability community, and inaccessible design facilitates that by making it difficult or impossible for people with physical impairments to navigate the built environment.

In a world of stairs, only people who can walk on stairs are able to engage with society. When we mumble about universal design and the need to create alternatives to stairs we’re certainly acknowledging that stairs present barriers to more than just disabled people, which is good. But we should be calling out their inaccessibility, and how they are exclusionary to disabled people with physical impairments. Yes, they’re also a problem for people like older adults using walkers (not all of whom identify as disabled), or people using strollers, or people burdened with a ton of luggage, or any number of other things, and yes, those people have a right to be in society too.

But let’s not forget that some things really are disability-specific and calling them something else is another way of avoiding the D-word, and it’s a problem. Pool lifts, for example, only benefit disabled people who need assistance with getting into a pool. They are an accessibility feature and one required by law in public accommodations. They ensure that disabled people with physical impairments who cannot get into pools without assistance but want to be able to swim can swim and enjoy doing so. Calling such features ‘universal design’ hides the fact that they are for disabled people, they are only for disabled people, and that is perfectly fine.

Language, terminology, and trends are slippery and complicated. We’re constantly in negotiations and discussions about the way we talk about things and how inclusionary or exclusionary our language is. Some view this as nitpicking — surely we have more important things to do! — but it isn’t. The way we refer to things like design in the built environment matters, because it determines the shape of how people think about these things. Hearing people throw the term ‘universal design’ around doesn’t carry as much weight as ‘accessible design’ when it comes to disability inclusion.

When I first saw my friend’s comments, I had an aha moment as something that had been poking at me suddenly became clear, even as I historically had personally pushed for the turn towards talking about these things in the framing of ‘universal design.’ She succinctly got at the problems with the way we think about these concepts and the implications this thinking has for the disability community.

There’s a trend in general these days towards avoiding the D-word and cloaking disability in euphemisms as though it’s something bad that should be hidden in a corner and avoided. I’m firmly on the record as being against disability euphemisms because I find them gross, infantalising, and stigmatising, and I’m also against tactics to hide disability and accessibility from society. Some things are just for us — and not even all of us — and that’s perfectly fine.

When we demand accessible design, we can remind the nondisabled populace that we exist and we have a right to be in public. When we demand universal design, it’s too vague, too unclear, and, moreover, it sounds like we’re trying to justify accessibility. I don’t have to justify a wheelchair ramp by saying that other people might find it useful, although they certainly will. I can demand a wheelchair ramp simply because wheelchair users need to be able to get into a space, and that’s just dandy.

Image: Wheelchair Access, Julia Hiltscher, Flickr