What Universal Design is Not
The Hunters Point Library, in Long Island City, New York, is a stunning building, full of light and offering panoramic views of Manhattan. It is also a complete failure of Universal Design. The library opened in September, but a recent New York Times article pointed out some glaring flaws that are making its beauty hard to appreciate for many people.
I am obsessed with the concept of Universal Design. The idea of physical spaces that are designed to be intuitive and inclusive is a powerful one. Just the mindset alone requires that you think of others, their variety and differences, and their various needs. It’s important to note that Universal Design is not about making everything accessible for everyone, but about combining form and function to create beautiful spaces that also embrace the widest reasonable swath of potential users. It’s about understanding your audience and appealing to the majority of them. And it’s not just about physical accessibility. The seven principles of Universal Design take into account many forms of diversity.
The principles of Universal Design were originally developed under the direction of Ron Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University (www.design.ncsu.edu/cud) in Raleigh in 1989. They are
- Equitable Use - The design is pleasing to all users, and it provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not. It also avoids segregating or stigmatizing.
- Flexibility in Use - The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- 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, and eliminates unnecessary complexity.
- Perceptible Information - It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information and maximizes “legibility” of essential information.
- Tolerance for Error - It arranges elements to minimize hazards and errors, and provides fail-safe features.
- Low Physical Effort -The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Size and Space for Approach and Use - Adequate space is provided to access, use, and manipulate items as necessary regardless of size, posture, mobility, or use of assistive devices.
As organizations focus more and more on diversity and inclusion, utilizing UD’s building concepts become increasingly relevant and urgent. And when accessible, equitable space is designed the right way, according to these seven principles, it can be beautiful and intuitive for all users. UD buildings don’t look like “handicapped” facilities. They don’t distract you from your intended activities and they keep you comfortable and safe. It’s amazing to reflect about the numerous “accommodations” that are now commonplace in our society. Although closed captioning was originally created to enable deaf people to watch TV programs, it wasn’t offered and fully implemented by national networks for some time. But now it’s a feature offered in a wide range of movies, sports broadcasts, special events and daily programming. After all, watching a program having closed captioning in a noisy bar can and does help any user follow what’s going on. Automatic doors allow people using crutches and wheelchairs easier access through entrance doors, but also help people carrying groceries, packages or babies. And voice typing on our cell phones seems almost ubiquitous today, but for those who have issues with typing or touch screens, it’s a lifesaver.
Not everyone has the luxury of building a new office, or buying and implementing new technology. But the seven Universal Design Principles can help us make better decisions on a small scale, too. In almost everything we do, we have choices that can make things more accessible and inclusive, or less so. Which side do you want to be on?
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