Towards Univeral Design

30+ Years of ADA and onward 

Without memories, we would not grow. We would not love. We would not persevere. Memories are what fuel our passions, because we would not continue to do something if we could not remember what it felt like. But memories also fuel change, because we would not experience motivation if we could not remember pain, suffering, or discord.  

In 2021, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). For those who do not know, the ADA is the legislation that grants Americans with disabilities their equal civil rights. You read that correctly: People with disabilities have only had equal rights as American citizens for a little over 30 years.

As a person living with a disability who was born after the ADA came into force, I feel there is still so much more to be done in making our world more accessible. However, for the people with disabilities who have lived much of their lives before the ADA, this legislation has been something of a miracle. This is why memory is so important. 

But it is also important to not let that memory become a stopping point and instead let it fuel further change toward true equality. The ADA was never meant to be the end-all, be-all for the inclusion of people with disabilities. It was the only foundation to build and grow from.  

Before I get too far along, I would like to introduce myself so you have a better idea of my perspective while reading this article. My name is Lauren, I am 26 years old, and I was born with muscular dystrophy. All you really need to know about MD is that my muscles are about as strong as a toddler’s, so I use a power chair to get around. I got my first power chair when I was 3 years old, so I have been confronted with inaccessibility for most of my life. Fast-forward 20 years, and I received my bachelor’s in rehabilitation studies; in earning that degree, I learned more about the disability community as a whole outside of my own experiences. While working on my master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, I became Ms. Wheelchair Texas in 2019, which is an advocacy title – not a beauty pageant! – that enabled me to travel the state of Texas, educating others on disability and my platform, universal design.  

What is universal design? 

Universal design is the ultimate goal for architectural accessibility. The aim of universal design is to simply make something or somewhere usable by everyone simultaneously, regardless of ability. The easiest example is a ramp. Everyone can use a ramp, whether they are on wheels, on foot, pushing a stroller or grocery cart, or on a skateboard. But not everyone can use stairs. Essentially, universal design is designing for disability first, because able-bodied people can use both accessible and inaccessible spaces, while people with disabilities can only use accessible spaces. My question has always been: If you can make spaces everyone can use, why make spaces only some people can use instead?  

Answers to that question usually include that accessibility equates to ugly, costly, and unnecessary. Well, I disagree. Making something accessible does not mean slapping a big obnoxious blue handi-man symbol on everything. Accessibility actually looks like zero entry thresholds, open floor plans, and wide doorways, all of which are desired features in a home. Making something accessible from the start also eliminates all the costs of making it accessible later. So it is more cost effective to implement universal design in blueprints for infrastructure. Lastly, making something accessible for people with disabilities only increases your market of people who can frequent your business.  

People have long tried to justify their lack of accessibility by saying that there aren’t enough people with disabilities coming to their business to make accommodations worth the time, money, or effort to install them. But the reality is that there are plenty of people with disabilities out there, but they avoid places inaccessible to them. I like to say, “If you build it, we will come.” It is a simple cause and effect relationship. If your business is inaccessible, you lose the business of 26% of the American population. If your business is accessible, you gain the business of that 26%. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. 

Photo credit: Lauren Taylor

Design Elements 

Now that I have shown the sense of designing for disability first, let’s talk about the specifics of what makes universal design unique.  

 For a design to be universally accessible, it must be equitable, flexible, simple, and perceptible. It must have a tolerance for error, require little physical effort, and it must have appropriate size and space that can be accessed regardless of approach. This sounds complicated, but let’s break it down. 

Equitable means that the space or object must be usable regardless of ability. Ramps are the perfect example as they provide equal access to any user.  

Flexible means that the space or object must be usable in different ways to accommodate different abilities. For example, a table with removable chairs allows someone to sit where they like, regardless of using their legs, a wheelchair, or a scooter for mobility. Places with fixed seating, like lecture halls and movie theaters, often cause accessibility issues because of a lack of flexibility. 

Simple and perceptible designs mean that it is easy to understand how to use the space or object. The push plate button that opens automatic doors is simple: You push the button and the door opens. Making something accessible should not mean sending someone on a wild goose chase to figure out how to access a place or how something works.  

Tolerance for error means there are procedures to catch mistakes. For example, when shopping online, a consumer typically presses some kind of “complete purchase” button to buy the items in the cart. If it had tolerance for error, it would show a message asking whether the consumer is sure about purchasing the items and asking the buyer to select “confirm” or “cancel.” For a consumer who is blind or whose hands tremor, this tolerance for error could prevent the shopper from purchasing things without even knowing it. 

Low physical effort means that it does not take much force to use something. I am sure you have all encountered an unnecessarily heavy door. You might have been able to open it using a bit more strength than usual. But for someone with limited arm strength or who uses a service dog to open doors, that heavy door becomes a brick wall.  

Size and space for approach means that a person has plenty of room to approach something and easily access the necessary functions of the space. For example, elevator buttons are usually at a great height for people sitting or standing, but are out of reach when a trash can is placed in front of them. Another important aspect of this design principle is, for example, having knee clearance under a checkout counter or a bar so those who are seated can easily pull under the surface to reach everything on top. 

Photo credit: Lauren Taylor

Why universal design? 

When something is made accessible, it usually means there is a separate point of access for people with disabilities because of the main entrance being inaccessible. While I am grateful for access in general, it can be exhausting to be seen as separate. Common occurrences of “separate accessibility” that people with disabilities experience include difficulty finding housing because homes aren’t built with accessibility in mind, having to use a service elevator alongside garbage troughs to get upstairs, going through the kitchen in back of restaurants to get to the dining area, and having to circle buildings to find the one designated accessible entrance. The list goes on.  

Too often people with disabilities are an afterthought because they live in a world not built with them in mind. The ADA helped raise awareness of these issues and sparked the idea of a separate kind of inclusion. But the ADA did not provide a solution to create a fully integrated society. 

Universal design is that solution. It solves the mystery and cost of accommodations because accommodations are no longer needed. Universal design creates a world that welcomes everyone and excludes no one. It creates a symbiotic space for people with and without disabilities to thrive in together.  

Memory of the ADA makes me all the more grateful it exists, so that people like me can have a voice to speak on these issues with you and help everyone grow together toward a greater design – a universal design. 

Lauren Taylor is a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate (LPC-A) and a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) at New Patterns Counseling.  

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