Introduction to Accessible Design in Media

Universal Design and Inclusive Design

Image: Corner of an intersection with curb cuts


The terms universal design and inclusive design are sometimes used interchangeably.

The Ontario Human Rights Code defines “inclusive design” as taking into account differences among individuals and groups when designing something to avoid creating barriers. Inclusive design can apply to systems, facilities, programs, policies, services, education, etc. (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2017).

Everyone can be accommodated if design is usable and flexible in everything from policy, buildings, products and technology.

Deepening Your Understanding

There are practical ways to design for inclusivity. As Stella Young said in her TED Talk in Focus Area Four, “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp” (Young, 2014).

Architect Ronald L. Mace originated the term "universal design" to describe the concept of designing things to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status. The focus of universal design tends to be on buildings, parks, spaces and roads (the human-made built environment) with the expectation that architectural design should work for everyone. Some of the principles of universal design include: equity, flexibility, simplicity and low physical effort in use and tolerance for error (Center for Universal Design, 2016).

As it happens, ramps are a great way to summarize the basic principle of universal design: if we construct buildings that have ramps leading up to their doorways, everyone can use those ramps to get into the buildings and go about their business. But if we build staircases, only some people can enter the buildings. Why then do we keep designing buildings with staircases leading up to them, when we could use ramps instead?

One of the classic examples of universal design is a sidewalk curb cut. Sidewalk curb cuts are what you might imagine: places where the sidewalk has been cut out to allow for an easy transition from sidewalk to road. They are sloped slightly like small ramps. While they were initially developed for people who use wheelchairs, they benefit everyone: people using strollers, or bikes, or skateboards, or scooters; people using carts to carry laundry or groceries; people using a dolly to deliver appliances and furniture and people who might enjoy a smoother transition from sidewalk to street.

Click on the image below to listen to the 99% Invisible podcast on Curb Cuts.

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Now, watch the Léonie Watson video, Design Like You Give a Damn and her perspective on universal and inclusive design. Léonie Watson is an accessibility consultant and engineer, member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Advisory Committee and co-chair of the Web Platform Working Group (WG), writer for tech journals, and public speaker.

The W3C is an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web. Part of the scope of the Web Platform WG is to ensure Web applications work across a wide range of devices and a broad diversity of users. They address issues of accessibility, privacy and security (World Wide Web Consortium, 2017).

Léonie Watson: Design like we give a damn! from W3C on Vimeo.