The history of universal design

Accessibility enhances the built environment for all users

February 27, 2019

A gleaming stainless steel handrail lines a ramp to a building
Universal design practice creates ease and accessibility for everyone.

Cities can be difficult places to navigate. The density of people, objects, and information is very high; surfaces are hard; roads are full of fast-moving traffic. People climb stairs and weave around obstacles to get to their destinations. Having a disability increases the challenges presented by a city. Important information can be lost in visual clutter. Some spaces may be physically impossible to get to. Changing traffic patterns and unpredictable people can create extra hazards for someone who relies on routine.

To cope with these challenges, disability advocates have outlined basic principles for inclusion. Cities can assist people with physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges through thoughtful construction. This guidance has influenced how we approach building, merging the distinction between accessible design and good design.

A history of accessible design

Accessibility is a 20th century movement. During the 1900s, modern society slowly came to recognize a responsibility to be inclusive. Further, the idea of ability and disability was changing. Before industrialization, communities and churches often managed life-circumstances on a per-person basis. Nutritional deficiencies, lack of medical attention, and hard, risky occupations meant many people had to manage one or more challenges. Most families had immediate experience in coping with disability.

The urban, industrial environment brought new challenges to those managing physical conditions. Standardization meant that homes and amenities were built for the “average” consumer, rather than the individual. Factories had a large, mostly anonymous labor pool to draw from. Where in a small town, laborers might find work in consideration of their ability, the factory owner was interested in standardizing labor as much as any other input. In this new built environment, physical challenges took on new prominence.

Disability rights became vital as the standardized modern world came into prominence. Organized activism for disability rights started in the 1800s, and advocacy continued to grow throughout the 1900s. At first, ability-specific organizations promoted the interests of their members. In the 1960s, these groups coalesced, and together they asserted that accessibility is a human right. In 1961, the American National Standard Institute published its first standard for accessible design. Over the next several decades, state and federal legislation put these standards into law.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) set out a clear prohibition of discrimination based on disability. When buildings are inaccessible, they shut people out of public participation. Therefore, the built environment can be a form of discrimination. In 1991, the US Department of Justice set out technical requirements for accessibility, releasing the ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

In the 90s, many accessible elements were add-ons to other structures, like the addition of ramps or lifts. These add-ons required redesign and additional cost. They often segregated those with physical challenges from the rest of the public. This afterthought-approach to accessibility was unsatisfactory. In response, a team of experts at NC State University released a guide offering “Principles of Universal Design.”

What is universal design?

Universal design seeks to create a better quality of life for everyone, regardless of their abilities, through thoughtful construction of the built environment. It challenges the idea that accessible design is an add-on. Also known as inclusive design, these principles set out a way of thinking about the built environment to create a more comfortable experience for all.

A woman in a wheelchair waits to board a bus on a platform with accessible design elements like buttons at two heights, bright contrasting clear information, and detectable warning plates
The Americans with Disabilities act prevents discrimination on the basis of disability.

Equitable use

When possible, design should be usable by people with a wide range of abilities, in a secure, safe, and comfortable manner. This principle addresses the segregation of populations based on ability and discourages stigmatization.

Flexibility in use

Flexibility-in-use aims to make the environment responsive and simple. The way we move around and interact with our environment is highly individual. Our experience may be different depending on our pace, which of our hands is dominant, if we are low to the ground, or if we can bend or stretch. Flexibility-in-use means creating design for the full range of human movement.

Simple and intuitive

Much of our built environment communicates information. Signs are common but require vision and sometimes literacy. The beep announcing a crosswalk or the bollards guarding an authorized zone are also are informative. Universal design avoids unnecessary complexity. Information should be consistent and predictable, with the important information placed prominently. Icons and graphics should be used to support a wide range of literacy and language abilities.

Perceptible information

Many modes of communication can be used to share essential information. Visual, verbal, and tactile cues can reach a wider range of people. All these modes should stand in high contrast to their surroundings.

Tolerance for error

Universal design aims to minimize hazards and provide clear warnings. Wherever possible, safety is built into the design through fail-safes.

Low physical effort

Lowering the amount of force a person needs to move through the environment means a wider range of people can participate. Some examples include setting a maximum grade for a ramp or maximum force needed to open a door. Low physical effort also means encouraging neutral body posture and lack of repetitive motions.

Adequate space for use

Site furnishings should be placed far enough apart for someone to turn a wheelchair or navigate with a walker, which also provides enough space for a parent and child or a couple close together. Operable objects shouldn’t require tight grip or fine motor control. Universal design also specifies that operable items be placed where they can be reached seated or standing.

The 8 goals of Universal Design

  • Body fit: building for the full range of human body sizes.
  • Comfort: don’t create an overly demanding environment.
  • Awareness: use different modes to communicate information effectively.
  • Understanding: make sure the environment is clear, unambiguous, and intuitive to use.
  • Wellness: promote people’s health and prevent injury.
  • Social integration: ensure everyone is invited into the public sphere equally.
  • Personalization: allow people to personalize their experience.
  • Cultural appropriateness: respect the context of any design project.

Universal design elements in urban settings

Visual wayfinding and directional signage

Clear wayfinding signs are important for those with visual and cognitive impairments. Wayfinding and directional signs let people know where they are and where they can travel to. To clearly and simply express this information in legible ways is both an art and a science. Considerations include font size and shape, sign positioning, text positioning and spacing, color choices that remain distinct to the color blind, and contrast choices that remain distinct to the visually impaired. A site should have consistency of sign design, so people know where to look for the information they need. Accessible amenities, like parking stalls and washrooms, must be clearly marked.

Clear wayfinding is useful for all people. Clear signs add to people’s sense of safety and add to a traveler’s willingness to explore.

A bollard with hook and eye chains helps create a physical barrier
Bollards are a way of communicating: they guide and separate traffic.

Walls, fences, and bollards for protection and guidance

Walls, fences, and bollards are helpful universal design elements. They allow for path delineation, give guidance to key destinations, and protect areas outside of traffic flow.

A boundary marked only with paint can be missed by those with visual challenges, and is easily crossed by accident. When traffic is not well separated, people must exercise vigilance in all directions. Physical separators make the environmental surveillance easier. The ADA requires that structures in pedestrian spaces be detectable by cane and not become tripping hazards. For various types of structures there are height and width requirements. These sorts of delineators are not just useful for those with disability: they help ease conflict between users in public spaces. When installed under the guidance of an engineer, they may provide physical protection against accidents.

A dip from curb to street in the middle of a block has an iron detectable warning plate and allows crosswalk access
Curb cut with cast iron detectable warning plate. By Michael3 – Own work, Public Domain.

Curb cuts and other sidewalk improvements

Curb cuts, also known as curb ramps or dropped curbs, were mandated in many countries in the 1990s. Curb cuts generally consist of a concrete ramp or slope from sidewalk to grade. More recently, legislation in many jurisdictions requires these ramps have tactile surfaces installed. Detectable warning plates and other tactile paving strategies warn the visually impaired that they’re approaching a street or other hazard.

Curb cuts are an excellent demonstration of the utility of universal design. They benefit those in wheelchairs, as well as those with strollers, wheeled pull-carts, and mobility aids. Pedestrians no longer have a curb corner to trip over. Curb cuts are increasingly added with other pedestrian measures. Expanded corners give more area to pedestrians at corners. Safety islands place a raised walk at the midpoint of a long crosswalk for those moving at a sedate pace.


Ramps, like curb cuts, provide accessible pathways for many people, not just those who use wheelchairs and walkers. The recommended grade is 1:12. All ramps should be non-slip, leave sufficient room for wheelchairs to navigate and turn, and have well marked edges and railings. These features also protect the family with young children, the adult checking their cellphone, or the pedestrian climbing the ramp in wintery weather.

Automated doors or doors with lever handles

Automated doors allow those in wheelchairs to access public buildings with ease. They also provide ease of use to people who have their hands full. Where automatic doors are not possible, doors should be easy to operate and leave room in front for a wheelchair. They should not require much force to use. Good options are pocket doors, and doors with lever handles rather than knobs.

A white cane sweeps across a bright yellow cast iron detectable warning plate
Detectable warning plates can come in bright high visibility colors or be installed in unfinished iron.

Detectable warning plates, tactile paving, and navigating by touch

Not all communication is visual. Detectable warning plates and other tactile paving techniques provide textural warning about an upcoming hazard. These plates are installed along curbs, on ramps, and along the edges of steps and platforms. High-quality, anti-slip detectable warning plates should be installed evenly and consistently.

Buttons at crosswalks can rumble when pushed to provide tactile feedback. Parks and other outdoor places can use Braille or tactile maps to communicate information through touch.

Tactile paving was originally created to provide good information to those using canes. However, this sort of multi-sensory approach to information sharing helps reaches everyone. A detectable warning plate also can warn someone who is distracted and looking down at their smartphone. It can alert a cyclist on a shared path that they’re crossing into pedestrian space.

Audible signals

Auditory pedestrian signals are becoming common at busy intersections. They make distinctive beeps that can be heard above the ambient traffic. North-south and east-west signal tones are often different, to allow people to orient their direction. Intersections with long crossings sometimes contain an audible countdown or extra signaling at a mid-point safety island. These signals, along with detectable warning plates, provide a multi-sensory awareness of the environment that communicates to all users.

A row of solar lighting bollards illuminates a stone path at night
Illuminating paths at night creates safety and security for all users.

Pathway lighting

Appropriate nighttime lighting is important for safety and security. Careful design creates consistent lighting needed for those with vision impairment. People using mobility aids also need a clear view of the path ahead. Lighting plans supportive of these groups also produce lower nighttime eye-strain. They increase the security of every user.

When creating an illumination plan, lamp standards should be placed so that light distribution is even. This way there are no visual cliffs or dark areas. Lighting bollards can be top-shielded so that they do not create glare to walkers or those in wheelchairs. In winter climates they should stand taller than average snow levels.

Accent lights must be placed at every major decision making point—forks in a path, near building entrances, and where pavement changes. All signs and wayfinding information should be bathed in extra light. The change in brightness and visibility alerts people to changing circumstances.

Amenities in reach and well-grouped

Universal design means considering what people can reach and how they can use the environment. Functional items should be in reach, between 24–48″, and should be operable using only one hand. Of course, this helps those with limited movement, but it also helps those with full hands, whether holding the hand of a child or carrying groceries. Groups of amenities—grouped resting places, water fountains, and trash receptacles, for example—should be placed close enough that people do not have to travel a long way between them, but spaced far enough that carts, wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers can navigate around them.

Universal design for greater livability

Accessible design is necessary so that the built environment doesn’t discriminate. That’s a vital goal, even if there was no other benefit. However, universal design recognizes that humans come in a very wide range of abilities. Everyone will go through times in their lives where moving about the city is a challenge, whether it’s disability, injury, illness, parenting, or age. Rather than segregating populations, universal design seeks to make the built environment functional for the whole range of human ability and comfort. It encourages engagement for the entire community.

Like walk score and walk appeal, the livability of a place can make it more desirable to be in. When the built environment is a challenge to navigate, it’s less livable. With universal design, people’s energy can go toward their goals, rather than toward negotiating tricky situations.


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