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Universal Design – Approaching Accessibility as A Universal Issue

A version of the traditional accessibility icon of the person in the wheelchair - this picture has many stick figure outlines of people in various sizes and physical conditions, all in white on a dark blue background.

Universal Design is a forebearer to digital accessibility as we know it that takes the approach we support: good design is barrier free.

How Universal Design Intersects with Digital Accessibility

Over the last century or so, there have been many movements aiming to integrate accessibility into the mainstream. Universal Design (UD) is one of the more successful ones, and it’s interesting to see how it can be translated to a digital context. Though UD was developed before computers and digital content were part of the average person’s everyday life, most of it is still relevant for us today. This is a specific look at an interesting part of the history of accessibility that can teach us how to approach digital accessibility now.


The History of Universal Design

Universal Design (UD), along with the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University College of Design, was founded by Ronald L. Mace, an architect, in 1989 as a way of encouraging inclusive design. Mace himself was wheelchair bound as a result of Polio, and he became a leading voice in accessible design. “Always seeing a universe where people with and without disabilities could share their lives, he not only coined the term "Universal Design," but he did much to fashion the tools so that it might one day become a reality”[i]. It has since grown into a global movement that focuses primarily on built design.

A picture of Ronald L. Mace

[image description: a picture of Ronald L. Mace]

Unfortunately, the Center for Universal Design has been inactive since 2008 due to lack of funding. But the movement continues elsewhere as a set of ideals to apply to design in many organizations throughout the world.


What is Universal Design?

The idea behind UD is that all buildings, products, or environments should be accessible to everyone regardless of who they are. This is a take on barrier-free design (a movement started in the 60’s), but Universal Design adds that it should also be aesthetically pleasing. Famous examples include curb cuts (the ramp leading from the sidewalk into an intersection), wide-paneled light switches instead of the small toggle switch, and turn-lever door handles instead of knobs that must be twisted. These are only a few, and you’ve likely encountered many more without realizing it. The mark of good design is that most of us are unaware of it, and that’s true of accessibility as well.


The Seven Principles of Universal Design

There are seven guiding principles of Universal Design[ii]:

Equitable use

A picture of many overlapping stick figure people drawn in rainbow gradient on a black background

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. That means, if possible, it should provide the same means of use for all users regardless of their abilities – when that isn’t possible, provide equivalent means; avoid segregating or stigmatizing users; make provisions for privacy, safety, and security equally available to all users; and make the design appealing to all users.

Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. That means there should be choice in the product’s method of use; it should accommodate right-hand or left-hand access and use (a quick reminder that these were written with infrastructural accessibility rather than digital accessibility in mind, although some assistive technologies will fall into both categories); the design should facilitate the user’s accuracy and precision; and it should provide adaptability to the user’s pace.

Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. That means your design should eliminate unnecessary complexity; should be consistent with user expectations and intuition; should accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills; should arrange information in a way that’s consistent with its importance; should provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion (when relevant). Examples given are moving sidewalks in public spaces and instruction manuals with pictures instead of text.

Perceptible information

Black outlines of an eye, an ear, a nose, a mouth, and a hand

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. That means a product’s design should use different modes (visual, tactile, verbal, etc.) for redundant presentation of essential information; it should maximize legibility of essential information; it should differentiate elements in ways that can be described for the purpose of giving instructions; it should provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards or the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. That means that the design should arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors (i.e., the most used elements are the most accessible and hazardous elements are eliminated, isolated, or shielded); it should provide warnings of hazards and errors; it should provide fail-safe features; and it should discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. That means that it should allow the user to maintain a neutral body position; should use reasonable operating forces; should minimize repetitive actions; and should minimize sustained physical effort.

Size and space for approach and use

An accessible ticketing gate that would accommodate a person in a wheelchair, a stroller, or a person with luggage

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. That means the design should provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user; it should make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user; it should accommodate variations in grip or hand size; and it should provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.


How Universal Design can be applied to digital accessibility

The seven principles of universal design were compiled in 1997, which means that their application to the digital world wasn’t completely clear to the people who made them. They also likely would have included things that didn’t make it in, had they known the extent of the technical revolution that had only just begun. As principles, however, they can and should be applied to the digital realm, and it’s interesting to see where they and actual digital accessibility guidelines overlap.

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) logo - the characters "W3C" in white on a dark blue background

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), for example, is based on four principles[iii]: perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness. These take it for granted that users will be of diverse abilities, thus making it redundant to specify, as the first principle of UD does. That said, the idea that user experience should be universal and not stigmatizing could stand to be applied more than it is in practice.

The second principle of UD, flexibility in use, maps onto the robustness and operability principles of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) principles of accessibility. Where digital accessibility is concerned, flexibility in use will tend to apply mostly to compatibility with assistive technologies that users might be using, rather than physical design features. It will also have to do with elements of timing that can be included in web content – making sure that that doesn’t alienate users with disabilities.

Simple and intuitive use, the third principle of UD, aligns with the understandability principle of accessibility, as well as the robustness principle. It’s hard to see how this specifically applies to digital accessibility, especially as one of the examples given in the infographic is the use of pictures instead of text in instructions manuals – in the digital world, this would be the opposite. In general, a good design will be simple and intuitive to use, but how that looks will vary from user to user, and it’s important to recognize that.

Perceptible information, the fourth UD principle, falls under the WCAG’s perceivability principle – perceptible information, as applied in the digital context, must all be perceivable.

A picture of a person on a tablet displaying a window that says, "are you sure? You will not be able to recover this file" and "yes" and "no" buttons

The fifth principle of UD, tolerance for error, would most likely overlap between operability and robustness, and in fact, one of the examples provided in the seven principles infographic is an “undo” button on computer software. This would have even more applications in the digital world of our times, including making it so that a user cannot accidentally navigate away from what they’re trying to do, or accidentally complete a purchase before they’re certain they want to, and many more.

Low physical effort, the sixth principle of UD, is generally a given when speaking about digital accessibility, as every action is taken virtually. However, a clear example can be found in the keyboard navigation guidelines, where there should be a “skip to main content” option at the top of any web page to avoid repetitive actions when browsing.

Size and space for approach and use, the seventh and final principle of UD, is mostly inapplicable to digital accessibility, but noncompliance with it can still create barriers to accessing the digital world if it’s in the context of computer terminals or portable devices’ sizes.


Universal Digital Design

Many colorful and ethnically diverse cartoon people of varied abilities perform different activities using different forms of technology.

The takeaways from UD and their application to digital design can be as many as the designer is creative. While not a perfect corollary, it’s interesting to see the overlap between UD and the WCAG, especially in the examples provided. Essentially, it argues for elegance in accessibility solutions, something that anyone who is motivated by a challenge should be excited about. Ultimately, the main reason why Universal Design is so compelling is in its name: it’s universal. It’s high time we start designing digital products with universality in mind, and we can learn how to do that from those who’ve come before us.





[ii] These are adapted from this infographic.


Inclusive. Compliant. Simple.