Universal design and the creation of inclusive spaces

According to StatsCan, one in five (22%) Canadians aged 15 years and over — or about 6.2 million individuals — have one or more physical disabilities.
Most of us know at least one person with a disability and have seen how the environments around them aren’t always easy to interact with. And as we ourselves age, the chances of us developing a disability that affects our mobility, vision or hearing greatly increases.
Instead of renovating to make spaces accessible, Universal Design (UD) offers an opportunity to make inclusive spaces that allow everyone to be a part of their community and live to their fullest potential. Since May 29 to June 4 is National AccessAbility Week — when we celebrate the contributions of Canadians with disabilities and promote efforts to increase accessibility and inclusion — it’s a good time to talk about Universal Design and inclusivity.
What is Universal Design?
Universal Design is an approach to creating spaces that are inclusive and equitable for everyone, regardless of age, disability or other factors.
Architect Ronald Mace contracted polio at the age of nine and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. While studying architecture at the North Carolina State University’s School of Design, Mace encountered inaccessible facilities that limited his ability to use the campus. He graduated with a degree in architecture in 1966 and went on to advocate for the disabled. Eventually, he coined the term “universal design” to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability or status in life. However, it was the work of Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled (1963), who really pioneered the concept of free access for people with disabilities. His most significant achievement was the creation of the dropped curb — now a standard feature of the built environment.
“If you do it right, it’s invisible,” says Brad McCannell, Vice President of Access and Inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation, speaking to Realtor.ca. “There are seven principles of Universal Design, but in a nutshell, what it’s designed to do is be the most good for the most people. It’s designed to allow people to interact with their built environment, easily.”
McCannell has been a leader in accessibility for more than 27 years. He’s responsible for the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Accessibility Certification™ program (RHFAC) and training. He also helps the Foundation support national disability advocacy work.
The seven principles of Universal Design
The seven principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by Mace. There are seven basic principles of Universal Design.
• Principle 1: Equitable Use The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
• Principle 2: Flexibility in Use The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
• Principle 3: 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.
• Principle 4: Perceptible Information The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
• Principle 5: Tolerance for Error The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
• Principle 6: Low Physical Effort The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
• Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
Accessible vs. Universal Design
According to McCannell, UD allows users to have flexibility of use. It’s simple and intuitive but differs from accessible design. Accessible design offers a solution for a specific application for a specific user whereas Universal Designs aims to create spaces that work for everyone.
A ramp is a good example. With Accessible design, the ramp might have been installed for one person who uses a wheelchair. Using UD principles, you could make the ramp less steep to make it easier for that person to wheel him or herself up the ramp without assistance or for parents pushing strollers or for seniors using walkers. You could also add high contrast markings for people who are visually impaired. Now the ramp can be used by many!
Universally designed places and products are all around us. You’ve probably used one without even realizing it! One of the most common examples of UD that you use every day is the sidewalk ramp, or curb cut (dropped curb) which is essential for anyone using a wheelchair. But it also benefits kids riding bikes, seniors using walkers, parents pushing strollers, and delivery people pulling dollies. When something is universally designed, it can be used easily by everyone. Some examples of everyday UD products are ramp entrances, automatic doors, lever door handles, flat panel light switches and task lighting.
Universal design is important because if a space is accessible, usable, and convenient for everyone —  regardless of age or ability — it’s inclusive for all. An accessible school, library, community centre, or park means everyone can participate fully in their community and enjoy a higher quality of life.
REALTORS® can advocate for clients with permanent or temporary disabilities during the home buying or selling process, and during the home building process. In fact, incorporating Universal Design during the building process is more cost effective compared to renovating a home to make it accessible later. It’s a way to ensure you’ve got all possibilities covered.
As McCannell notes, you may not see the need now, but with Universal Design, you’ll still be able to enjoy your space if you need crutches for a few weeks or need a walker every day as you age which makes aging in place seamless. UD principles ensure that homes are accessible to all while increasing the appeal of a home that’s for sale and expanding the pool of potential buyers.
Visit rickhansen.com for more information about universal design, the Rick Hansen Foundation, and how you can get involved.