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Human Capital

Employment Equity


What is Universal Design? It is simply defined as “the design of products,

environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the

greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.

‘Universal Design’ shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of

persons with disabilities, where this is needed 1

.” The definition can extend to “a

process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human

performance, health and wellness and social participation 2

.” In short, Universal

Design is meant to make life easier for everyone.

Realistically not all products, services or environments can be

entirely usable by every person. Still, Universal Design proactively

increases the potential to serve the needs of diverse people

better, thus ensuring a better quality of life and inclusivity.

Universal Design means that one proactively considers the

diverse characteristics of all potential users, namely persons

with disabilities, as well as incorporating age, gender, learning

preferences, size and native language. It aims to include any

challenges the user may experience when engaging with a

product, service, workplace or environment.

Universal vs Accessible Design

Universal Design differs from Accessible Design, as demonstrated

by way of the following examples 3


Example 1: A building is accessible if it has a ramp at the side

that is out of the way for all visitors, but allows wheelchair users

side access. A no-step building entry that everyone can use easily

and together is based on Universal Design principles.

Example 2: A hotel can have a limited number of accessible

rooms used for guests with disabilities, in contrast to a hotel with

100% universally designed rooms of various types, meeting the

needs of diverse guests.

Universal Design is typically viewed as a ‘good thing’ from this

perspective. Two areas of its application, namely the workplace

and education, are further addressed in the eight goals of

Universal Design. Principles governing Universal Design were

developed in the 1990s to address discrimination and are still

widely used today, which are laid out as follows 4


> Equitable use means the design is useful and marketable

to people with diverse abilities, thus avoiding segregating or

stigmatising any users; for example a website accessible to

everyone, including people with visual impairments.

> Flexibility in use means the design accommodates a wide

range of individual preferences and abilities, giving a choice

in the methods of use. Learning material in an accessible

format that allows the learner to read or listen to it employs

this principle.

> Intuitive and straightforward means the use of the design is

easy to understand, regardless of the user’s characteristics.

Easy-to-use and straightforward buttons on the control panel

of equipment is an example.

> Perceptible information, meaning the necessary information,

is effectively communicated to the user regardless of their

sensory abilities. An emergency alarm system with visual and

auditory characteristics is an example, as is video captioning.

> Tolerance for error means the design minimises hazards and

the adverse consequences of accidental errors. Instructional

software that provides guidance when the user makes an

inappropriate selection employs this principle.

> Low physical effort means the design can be used efficiently,

comfortably and without unnecessary strain on the user.

Automated doors employ this principle.

> Size and space for approach and use means the design is

appropriate regardless of the user’s body size, posture or

mobility. Adjustable workstations serve as an example.

Notwithstanding the implementation of these design principles,

one needs to bear in mind that some products, services and/

or environments will remain inaccessible to some individuals.

Therefore, provision should be made for reasonable accommodation

needs, taking into account persons with disabilities.

Universal Design in the workplace

It is a critical consideration when designing workplace

environments, as it can assist in increasing the participation of

persons with disabilities in the workforce. It reduces the need for

reasonable accommodation measures to be put in place later if the

employer wants to employ a candidate with a disability or wants to

retain a current employee who becomes disabled. High levels of

usability reduce health and safety risks for all employees, increase

task efficiencies and, generally speaking, are good for employee

morale. They can assist in attracting and keeping a diverse

workforce by meeting the needs of all people. Common workplace

features include:

> Workstations with adjustable height to accommodate a range

of statures and visual abilities;

> Noise-controlled work areas;

> Systems to adjust light levels in workspaces to the requirement

of specific tasks depending on individual abilities and/or


> ‘Sit-stand’ workstations; and

> Directional signage.

Universal Design for learning

It can influence learning by proactively meeting the needs of all

learners, whether at school, tertiary institutions or in the workplace.

Environmental barriers to learning address the equal opportunity to

succeed, including learners with disabilities. Flexible options and

variability are key factors.

The following are examples of how Universal Design can be

incorporated in this context 5


Known goals

Learners should have express goals upfront to know what

they are working to achieve, and these should be reinforced

continuously during the learning process.

Assessment Options

There should be various options for learners to complete

assignments other than a formal exam or test, such as writing an

essay, creating a podcast, or making a video to show what they

have learnt.

Flexible workspaces

As far as possible, flexible workspaces should be provided, like

quiet spaces for individual work vs group instruction.

Regular Feedback

Giving learners regular feedback – even daily – is encouraged

to constantly reflect on the learning process and adapt, when

necessary, to ensure they can achieve the learning goals.

Digital and Audio Text

If learners cannot access information, they will not learn, thus

not progress. Therefore, learning materials should be available

in an accessible format, including print, digital, text-to-speech

and audiobooks. There should be options for text enlargement,

screen colour and contrast. Videos should have captions and

audio should have transcripts available.

The advantages and limits of Universal Design

Developed as part of a social movement to create equal access,

Universal Design can ensure a barrier-free built environment. It

evolved out of the need to avoid discriminatory design. Under the

social model of dealing with disability, it is known that impairments

in interaction with various barriers, including environmental

barriers, may hinder persons with disabilities in full and effective

participation in society on an equal basis with others. Creating

enabling environments is an important objective.

Universal Design supports the inclusion and mainstreaming

of persons with disabilities, but is not the wand that magically

removes all access barriers experienced by persons with


Some writers caution that a disproportionate focus on technical

innovations and design outcomes should be avoided, as the

implementation and success of Universal Design may still

inadvertently have an impact in specific social and cultural

contexts. Redressing design discrimination is no guarantee of

access for persons with disabilities. Value and attitudinal changes

remain prerequisites to facilitate equality of accessibility in specific


For example, a person using a lift for their wheelchair to access

public transport can still be subject to prejudice and the

unaccommodating attitudes of the bus or taxi driver and their

fellow travellers, causing an unpleasant journey.

Critiques have expressed the fear that the intrinsic rights of

persons with disabilities can undermine the commodification

of access as promoted by Universal Design. The design may

become no more than a product or service sold or acquiring

market share, rather than the politics necessary to ensure

equal access for persons with disabilities. The proponents and

practitioners of Universal Design and their understanding of

disability, design and access cannot be accepted at face value.

There is a need to interrogate further, discuss and critique

“universalism” and its practical implementation. There are finite

resources and competing cultural claims about what accessibility

is or should be and how it practically addresses the needs of

persons with disabilities.

To support equal inclusion and to avoid new barriers from

arising, an organisation should closely consult with persons with

disabilities and their representative organisations.

Accessible, usable and inclusive

Generally speaking, Universal Design supports the attainment

of social justice and ensures access to housing, education,

healthcare, transportation and other resources for diverse

people. It aims to enhance independence, dignity and purpose

for all people and is thus definitely worthy of consideration when

designing products, services and the built environment.

The aim is accessibility, usability and inclusivity. There is value in it

for all stakeholders, including persons with disabilities. Universal

Design indeed plays an essential role in addressing design

discrimination for persons with disabilities, but it does not provide

the solution for all sources of disablement within our society.

Source of reference:

1. United Nations 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

- Article 2 available on

2. Steinfeld, E. & Maisel, J. 2012 Universal Design:

Creating Inclusive Environments Wiley Publishers.

3. Steinfeld, E. & Maisel, J. 2012 Universal Design:

Creating Inclusive Environments Wiley Publishers.

4. WBDG 2017 Beyond Accessibility to Universal Design available on

5. CAST Updated 5 Examples of Universal Design for Learning

in the Classroom available on

6. Imrie, R. 2011 Universalism, Universal Design and Equitable Access to the Built

Environment in Disability and Rehabilitation available on

09 - Universal Design and the Access Rights of Persons with Disabilities
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