Ron Mace on Universal Design

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The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University makes available online an edited version of an important public address on universal design.

Delivered by one of its foremost developers, Ron Mace, this presentation was delivered at the first international conference on universal design - Designing for the 21st Century I. The dialogue continues at the third international conference in Rio de Janeiro December 2004 -- Designing for the 21st Century III.


Barrier-free Design

Barrier-free design is what we used to call the issue of access. It is predominantly a disability-focused movement. Removing architectural barriers through the building codes and regulations is barrier-free design. The ADA Standards are barrier-free design because they focus on disability and accommodating people with disabilities in the environment. In fact, the ADA is the now the issue of access in this country.

So, what is the difference between barrier-free and universal? ADA is the law, but the accessibility part, the barrier-free design part, is only a portion of that law. This part, however, is the most significant one for design because it mandates what we can do and facilitates the promotion of universal design. But, it is important to realize and remember that ADA is not universal design. I hear people mixing it up, referring to ADA and universal design as one in the same. This is not true.

Universal Design

Universal design broadly defines the user. It’s a consumer market driven issue. Its focus is not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people. It actually assumes the idea, that everybody has a disability and I feel strongly that that’s the case. We all become disabled as we age and lose ability, whether we want to admit it or not. It is negative in our society to say “I am disabled” or “I am old.” We tend to discount people who are less than what we popularly consider to be “normal.” To be “normal” is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of “normal.” This just is not the case.

Assistive Technology

Now, assistive technology to me is really personal use devices—those things focused on the individual—things that compensate or help one function with a disability. Many of you wear eyeglasses because you have limited sight. The assistive technology is your eyeglasses. We could legitimately say that everybody who wears eyeglasses has a disability.

Another example of assistive technology is my wheelchair. I need it as an individual. It is not a consumer product. It’s for me. It’s an assistive technology device. The oxygen system I use is also assistive technology. It’s not aesthetic or very marketable. How many of you want to carry one of these things around every day? This is not a consumer product.

Assistive technology really started in the medical industry with durable medical equipment. Here, again, people needing equipment are discounted as whole people. We are considered to be patients. We should be grateful to have an oxygen system that keeps us breathing or a wheelchair that provides mobility. Whether or not the product looks nice, is easy to live with, or is available at a marketable price is unimportant to those developing and providing it.

So, if you could separate barrier-free, universal, and assistive technology distinctly, they would look like this: assistive technology is devices and equipment we need to be functional in the environment; barrier-free, ADA, and building codes are disability mandates; and universal design is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user that encourages attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. The reality, however, is that the three blend and move into each other.


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