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Think about the last time you rode an elevator, used a crosswalk, or walked through an automatic door. All of these thinks make your life easier, right? Now imagine a world without them. According to a recent post in the New York Times, in January, a mother carrying her baby’s stroller down the staircase of a subway in New York, fell and lost her life. Had there been an elevator in the station, it may have saved her life. Universal Design has influenced so many things in our world that we take for granted today.
I will start by explain what Universal design means, then give you the history behind universal design, and then end with examples of its use and the benefits it brings. I feel qualified to talk to you about this because not only have I taken the course “Learners with Exceptionalities,” which focuses on Universal Design and its application in learning, but also after doing more research into the topic, I feel it is important for everyone to understand.
First, I will explain what Universal Design actually means. Universal Design refers to the design of an environment so it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of age, size, or ability. It is a fundamental condition of all good design and helps meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. Dr. Molly Story, a human factors and accessible medical technology specialist in her book “The Universal Design File,” describes seven principles of Universal Design.
The first is equitable use, which means the design is usable and marketable to people of all abilities. Second, is flexibility in use, which means that the design accommodates a wide range of both individual preferences and abilities. Next, simple and intuitive, meaning the use is easy to understand regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. The fourth principle is perceptible information, which involves communicating information effectively regardless of the ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Fifth, there is tolerance for error, which minimizes hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. The sixth is low physical effort, the design can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue. Last is size and space, appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of body size, posture, or mobility. Universal Design is not just an outcome, it is a process that strives to improve the original design concept by making it more inclusive.
Now that you have an understanding of Universal Design, I will give you a brief history of how it came about. According to an article in National Disability Authority, the push for Universal Design began in the 20th century when there were major social changes with respect to civil and human rights. Around the same time, medical advancements were increasing the likelihood of surviving injuries and illness, increasing the average life expectancy. Partly due to a large number of wounded soldiers returning from World War II, the rights and needs of both older people and people with disabilities was brought to focus. In response, the government began to introduce civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation. The design industry was pressured to meet the demands of creating accessible and usable products, services, and environments. Similarly, in the 1970s, the concept of barrier-free design emerged to help remove barriers for disabled people from the built environment. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. It guarantees individuals with a disability greater access to participation in the everyday activities enjoyed by those without disabilities. In response, architects developed the principles of universal design to guide the creation of new buildings and tools for living so that they were accessible to as many people as possible, including those with disabilities. Whether we realize it or not, we encounter many examples of universally designed features or products in our daily lives.
Finally, I will explain the many benefits that Universal Design brings. It helps produces, services, and the environment easier to use. According to Learners with Exceptionalities professor, Dr. Smith, “the principles of universal design are much more common than they used to be and they benefit everyone, I personally walk up the ramp to Storch because it seems easier than using the stairs.” You might be thinking, accessible infrastructure is not for you, but everyone can benefit from ramps, elevators, grab bars, and nonslip surfaces. Imagine for a moment a man in a wheel chair waiting to use a ramp that is covered in snow. The guy in charge of clearing the snow tells him “you will have to wait until I finish clearing the stairs before I clear the ramp.” The man points out to him that if he clears the ramp first, then everyone will be able to get up to the building. The point is, a truly inclusive design acknowledges that disability is an expected part of human life, not a tragedy or “special” consideration. According to the CDC, as many as 26% of Americans suffered from at least 1 disability in 2018. That is 1 out of every four people that need special consideration in design. However, 100% of people can benefit from Universal Design. Think of curb cuts, for example. They allow people who use wheelchairs to move freely and independently from sidewalks to streets or parking lots, but they also benefit those who use strollers, shopping carts, scooters, and skate boards. If you have ever gotten a message on your computer reminding then you that your document is unsaved, your email doesn’t have a subject, or double checking you want to delete a file, you have benefited from universal design’s tolerance for error. These are just a few of the many examples of how universal designs make life more user-friendly for everyone.
In summary, we have talked about a brief history of universal design, what it means, and how it benefits everyone. The most important thing that I want you to remember is that we live in a constantly changing world that is constantly finding ways to improve the quality of life not just for those who are different but for everyone. Moving forward, what new strategies of Universal Design can you think of that will lead to lasting change for the better?
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