Universal Design and Access

What is usability? If a door equipped with a push bar actually required me to pull on it in order to open it, I became upset. I considered it a bad experience due to poor usability.

Things we might normally think of as well designed are often only “well designed” within a certain context. People with limited use of their arms, for example, might find a standard door difficult to open, or a standard keyboard difficult to employ. Ditto those with impaired vision using browsers that might lack support for web standards, or relying on high contrast signage to find their way in the physical world. They often incur barriers when accessing the physical environment or the web.

Obviously, this is less than ideal. Design shouldn’t serve merely a subset of its audience – it should serve everyone, equally. Doing that, however, requires thoughtful conversations before, during, and after development of buildings, public spaces, and communication systems begins.

We don't aim to provide a comprehensive look at the subject. Instead, we want to provide a springboard, introducing universal design and its close cousin, accessibility. For context’s sake, we’ll take a look at some of the ways in which universal design manifests itself – both online and off – and then close with some thoughts on approaching design in a more universal way.

What is universal design?

Universal design describes a set of considerations made to ensure that a product, service, and/or environment is usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. Accessibility is only slightly different, describing the degree to which a product, service, and/or environment is made available to everyone. So whereas the former is a design methodology (similar to user-centered design), the latter is its most commonly associated metric.

Colloquially, accessibility refers to the degree to which a design functions for people with disabilities – those who can’t see, can’t hear, those who can't walk, those who can't can’t use a keyboard or mouse, or those who have a cognitive or speech disability.

Universal design make products and services more accessible, paving the way for an inclusive society.

Sloped sidewalks are a design detail accompanying contemporary pedestrian walkways. Physically, they’re nothing more than ramps that are added to sidewalks to make things easier for people using a wheelchair; but their actual utility runs far deeper. By addressing the need for people who use wheelchairs, designers have also made life easier for moms with strollers, people with handtrucks, etc. This is a good example of how designing for the “extreme” case makes the experience better for everyone.

Like most universal design considerations, progressive enhancement (when done well) isn’t “visible” unless you know how to look for it. Nevertheless, understanding the thinking that goes into universal design makes all the difference with regards to our approach.

What things shape a universal approach?

Accessibility begins with the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. The concept of accessible design and practice of accessible development ensures both "direct access" (i.e. unassisted, for example lifts, toilets, buildings) and "indirect access" meaning compatibility with a person's assistive technology (for example, computer screen readers). It is, likewise, made available via an accessible service, for example accessible transport systems: Whether it is taking a bus, planning a trip, or boarding a plane, disabilities affect each customer's trip in different ways.

Designing products and services so that they meet these criteria isn’t easy. Instead of asking "does it work for me?, universal designers take an opportunistic point of view, asking who are the people/systems that could possibly use this product or service, and what are the barriers that could possibly stand in their way? This breaks down into a few, key activities: building the business case, measuring accessibility, and understanding disabilities. To be sure, all of these revolve around learning about, developing, and adhering to “best” practices.

Universal Design: The Business Case

South Africa currently has laws and building regulations which is not discriminatory, barrier free and inclusive of persons with disabilities, but we fail in the implementation of this legislation in terms of providing true equality for persons with disabilities, and failure to enforce compliance with existing building regulations. Non-compliance exposes companies to legal action from individuals and could also lead to class action, permissible under our constitution. The Road Accident Fund created a whole industry of lawyers taking legal risks on behalf of their clients, and its imminent demise will turn their attention elsewhere. Accessibility and negligence at public hospitals are on their radars. Non-compliance is about to become very expensive, for both government and corporations.

Measuring Accessibility

Measuring Accessibility

The National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities Access Unit work towards the provision of a built environment that is universally accessible. We provide consultancy services to help service providers and building professionals identify barriers and hazards to access for people with disabilities. We provide pragmatic, cost effective recommendations from a pan-disability approach.

To assist both service providers and persons with disabilities, we offer the following:

  • Access Audit - this service offers a comprehensive audit, which assesses the extent to which an existing building satisfies current legislative standards, and highlights the ways that simple changes may improve accessibility.
  • Plan Appraisal – this service provides an appraisal of design proposals assessing the accessibility of the proposed development.
  • Access Action Plan – this service provides technical advice and information on how to implement proposed changes into an effective operational plan.
  • Audit Appraisal – this can be carried out to help ensure that the completed work meets with the recommendations of the Access Audit.
  • Research – the Access Unit undertake research projects tailored to the needs of a client or interest group.


  • Helps towards legal compliance.
  • Informed expert assessment.

Principles of Universal Design

  1. Equal Access In order for a design to be truly universal, it must be useful to people with all kinds of conditions and abilities. This includes people with disabilities or activity limitations.
  2. Flexibility It’s important that the design is flexible enough to apply to all different kinds of people who have a huge variety of different abilities or disability. An example might be providing information in Braille underneath signs so that people who are blind can read them.
  3. Simplicity The design should be easy to understand so that people with varying levels of education and experience can use it.
  4. Effective communication The design must convey the needed information to the user, even if they have limitations in their sensory capabilities or ability to process this information.
  5. High tolerance for error If a user accidentally makes a mistake while using the design, it’s important that they are not harmed or their situation is not made more difficult as a result.
  6.  Minimal effort required A person should be able to apply the design easily, even if they have limits to their physical or mental capabilities.
  7.  Suitable space and size for use No matter what size a person is or how mobile they are, they should have enough space and the ability to effectively use the design.

It is by considering each of these seven principles that we help our clients ensure that they attain universal design on all types of projects.