Making Universal Design in Tourism a Matter of Solidarity

Making Universal Design in Tourism a Matter of Solidarity

Scott Rains


We are here to forge some links of solidarity around disability. At historic moments like these we show the world what we have done and we state clearly what we intend to do in the future. The answer about the future from the side of the disability community is always this, "[Do] 


nothing about us without us."  I am going to suggest that our future together as a continent lies in a practice, invented by the disability community, called Universal Design. We are here to design a future.

Engineering is about making something but with special emphasis on the properties and relationships of the elements comprising that thing. That "thing" is most often valued for its usefulness.

Art is about communicating. The "usefulness" of art may simply be that it evokes a human response. Design engages in a process of mediating. The designer stands between what is practical and what is evocative in order to make real something that has been imagined. Art can be designed. Technology can be designed. It is the special job of the designer to ask, "For whom?"

In the next day and a half we will look at tremendous governmental achievements and stellar philanthropic accomplishments. Each project provides us with data that was previously unknown to us. Each sets up new opportunities. Each moves us ahead to the next question, "What next? How do we move beyond the basics of access to full social inclusion of people with disabilities? "

You see, inclusion is more than accessibility.

Accessibility was the rallying cry of a political movement springing from the civil rights era of the 1950's through the 1970's. When buildings literally had no wheelchair-accessible entrance then even a ramp to the back door past the garbage cans in the dark was an improvement. Political self-assertion by people with disabilities led to an awareness by the disability community of interdependence. The core value is still empowerment of the individual but the goal is to benefit ALL of society by finding solutions for the broadest number of people across the full spectrum of human abilities.

Inclusion is a social ethic reflecting a globalized, networked world where freedom of movement and the full participation of all is taken for granted -- and enshrined as a right.

Accessibility is passive - leaving the door open without obstacles in the way.

Inclusion is active - inviting you in to the human network beyond the newly barrier-free doorway.

Accessibility looks at meeting the needs of a specific, often underserved, slice of our citizens, clients, or  customers. Inclusion expands your entire market without alienating any section. It just makes good business sense.

Accessibility looks backward. It tries to hold the line at outmoded and artificial standards of  what is "normal." It generates half-ideas like  "adapted" sports or "adapted tourism." Accessibility degenerates into "mere compliance" with regulations. It can become an obsession with checklists.  It often categorizes people with disabilities as risks to be managed or minimized.

Inclusion looks forward. It sees the aging of the entire world population where, for the first time in history , old people outnumber the young. Inclusion recognizes that diversity in human capacities is the norm in the general population - and is inevitable in one's own lifecycle.

Society has traditionally designated people with disabilities to sit on its edges and observe. However, people with disabilities have found their power, spoken up, and so transformed the process by which we intentionally change things. They have changed design.


The tool for changing how we make change is Universal Design or, to expose its secret even more clearly with its other names "Design for All," "Lifespan Design," or "Inclusive Design."

One short definition has it as:

Universal Design is a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving performance, health, and social participation.

~ From Chapter1: Barriers and the Social Meaning in Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments p. 29

I propose that we have moved beyond the stage where mere accessibility is sufficient. We need social sustainability of the values of inclusion and interdependence. The projects we will discuss here move us firmly through the first of three stages of progress:


There is a typical trajectory in architecture as societies develop more advanced perspectives on disability. The first stage is the architecture of exclusion, usually by neglect. The second is one of dependence through development of a legal framework and physical environment that eliminates discrimination and removes barriers to independence. We are now moving toward a new stage in many societies: the architecture of social participation, with the goal of equality in opportunity through universal design.


~ From Chapter1: Barriers and the Social Meaning in Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments p. 17


Human beings change things in ways no other animal does. We see patterns in the world around us and we recognize them. We invent new patterns and we impose them to make a new world.

The process we go through to intentionally change things is called design. Design requires a little bit of engineering, a little bit of art, and a lot of imagination.

At some moments designing is intensely solitary. At other moments it can hardly be distinguished from play. Disneyland, which likes to think of itself as the world's playground, made up its own word to capture this seriously playful process -- "Imagineering."  With the word they are trying to signal the atmosphere they want - an atmosphere of delight. A magic place where all are included through design.

You pass into the Magic Kingdom - Disneyland - and you are comfortable. You feel included. In some unexpected way you are home. What you experience makes you surprised and delighted. You are a temporary citizen of a space and a culture that is ... one of the most stable and profitable enterprises in the world? Wait! A company that sells the temporary experience of participation as a citizen makes a profit and even grows?

There is a secret here to be discovered. Disney wants to design the experience of surprising a customer by meeting, then surpassing, their expectations. That is delight and it is the secret to winning loyalty and its profits.

What Disney shows us is something we call Destination Management or Destination Development in tourism. We take a destination and identify the experience it offers. Then we design it around the customers we desire.

Let's watch a humorous video about an actual travel experience where all passengers did not receive the same level of care. When I showed this at a conference in Italy two weeks ago the disabled people in the audience commented, "This is how I feel I'm treated when I travel."

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

[Play Video: United Breaks Guitars]

he history of inclusive tourism is rather recent. Laurel Van Horn and Jose Isola attempted the first documentation of it in the article, "Toward a Global History of Inclusive Tourism." (

Changes took place after World Wars I and II that were socially transformative. Improved medicine meant that ever-greater numbers of veterans, and later citizens in general, survived life-threatening events and lived with chronic conditions. Social services provided to veterans of World Wars I and II in the US included opportunities to travel such as Disabled Veterans Rest Camp in Minnesota. Slowly a critical mass of people with disabilities, in different generations and life circumstances began to travel regularly.

Between the two World Wars, charity organizations targeting specific disabilities began to organize summer camps (Pelka, 1997, pp. 240-41). For many children, including those affected by the polio epidemic, these provided a first experience of travel away from home. These facilities were segregated, although, ironically, that very segregation may have helped to foster a sense of disability identity or community so important to the later struggle for equal rights (Heumann, 2003).

Slowly, almost imperceptibly this group began to re-examine the world in light of their own experience. They looked at it and measured it against their own bodies.

To answer our first question of "What next?", we should think about how the creation of a place, a product, or even a policy might use the following seven guidelines of Universal Design. The guidelines address:


            Body fit 





            Social integration 


Keep in mind the longer definition of Universal Design:

Universal Design is a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Most simply, Universal Design is human-centered design of everything with everyone in mind.

Universal Design imagines people with disability. It imagines them as users. It imagines them as customers. It imagines - and employs - them in all stages of the design process as experts on their own experience.

Here is an example of one extremely successful company that is built 100% around the concept of Universal Design. The company is called Smart Design. They sell their products under the brand OXO:

[Play Video: OXO

 (Time 2:05 minutes)

The guidelines listed earlier were well illustrated in the OXO video. Specifically these are known as the Seven Goals of Universal Design:

1.         The design is accommodating of a wide a range of body sizes and abilities - That's Body fit 

2.         The design keeps demands within desirable limits of body function and perception - That's Comfort

3.         The design ensures that critical information for use is easily perceived - That's Awareness

4.         The design makes methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous - That's Understanding

5.         The design contributes to health promotion, avoidance of disease, and protection from hazards - That's Wellness

6.         The design treats all groups with dignity and respect - That's Social integration

7.         The design incorporates opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences - That's Personalization

But the core secret hidden in Universal Design is this: "Design for the extremes of human diversity." Not surprising that this would be the historic contribution of the disability community through Universal Design inventor and quadriplegic, Ron Mace.

[Play Video: Smart Design Objectified] (Time 2:29)


Ron Mace, an architect who was also quadriplegic, developed Universal Design. His idea became popular during a time of worldwide protests against architectural barriers by people with mobility impairments. Protesters promoted what we now refer to as accessible design.

Universal Design arose from the insight that accessible design was not enough. As urgent as simple, immediate accessibility was design for all was necessary.

"Universal design is a search for design strategies that bring benefits for all." It is an accident of history that people with disabilities invented and spread insistence that design create for all, even marginalized, people.

"Universal Design, at its most elemental level, seeks to make our built environment, products, and systems as enabling as possible; in other words, it seeks both to avoid creating barriers in the first place and, through intelligent use of resources, to provide as much facilitation as possible to reach human goals."

Engaging in the process of Universal Design helps identify barriers and understand the nature of the challenges to be overcome. If we want to understand why an idea so practical and powerful as Universal Design is not universally applied we need to look at the purpose served its opposite - design for exclusion.


Physical exclusion by design is what society does to criminals through prisons and for those who are ill through hospitals. Historically architects borrowed from prisons and hospitals to design special institutions to house people with disabilities. In all cases someone is being protected and someone isolated even when they are the same person "isolated for their own protection."

Western civilizations have historically used charitable institutions to care for people with disabilities. However, when people with disabilities are confined to institutions, they are rarely found in public spaces or living in residential neighborhoods; thus, it appears that it is unnecessary to provide accessibility to the community outside the institutions. Not only is the inmates' spoiled identity reinforced by the message that they cannot take care of themselves or participate productively in society, but the lack of accessible environments in the outside community also reinforces the belief.


~ From Chapter1: Barriers and the Social Meaning in Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments p. 17


The error perpetuates itself because those who are stigmatized are not imagined as users, citizens, neighbors, or customers.


What is a "spoiled identity?" Sociologists use the word "stigma" to mean the same thing. From a pragmatic perspective stigmas are socially created and thus can be eliminated. Universal Design is about becoming aware of the stigmas and strategizing ways to eliminate them. 

Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century, defined stigma as:

The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute is deeply discredited by his/her society [and] is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. (Goffman, 1963).

Gerhard Falk, author of more than fifty scholarly works, wrote in Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders:

All societies will always stigmatize some conditions and some behaviors because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating "outsiders" from "insiders" (Falk, 2001).


[Remember how I asked at the start how many people traveled with musical instruments? I asked the question twice. The second time I stigmatized musicians saying, "Even really odd and cranky ones like musicians." Fewer people raised their hands even after that tiny poisoning with stigma. ]

The book, Unraveling the Contexts of Stigma, by Catherine Campbell and Harriet Deacon summarize Goffman's ideas of stigma as universally including persons with these characteristics:

§                    Overt or External Deformities

§                    Deviations in Personal Behavior such a mental illness

§                    Tribal stigma such as race

They go on to suggest three main ways to challenge stigma:


  1. Educate individuals
  2. Legislate
  3. Mobilize the public

Each way suggests a primary actor:

1.       Non-stigmatized individuals becoming informed

2.       Government legislating

3.       Stigmatized and non-stigmatized individuals joining in public solidarity

There is a fourth actor: Business. Produce products that enable greater interaction between abled and disabled people.

Let non-stigmatizing products, like OXO, redefine societal and cultural attitudes toward PwDs. Find the need in the market and sustain yourself through profit.


We can take what we know in field like medical technology, assistive technology, even automobile and clothing design and apply that knowledge to  "Design for the extremes of human diversity." 


We know that we are one the right path when we look from the long perspective.


Many centuries ago Vitruvius wrote about architecture. Leonardo da Vinci summarized the Vitruvian Man with his famous sketch. Ron Mace invented Universal Design and inspired us to re-draw the sketch.


If we are going to take the tremendous knowledge that is locked away in various academic fields and shape it into places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without what we produce stigmatizing them we need to know much more abut what they want, what they do, even, what they look like.


Let's end with that. Let's end where we began. Imagine:


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