What is 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 is also called Inclusive Design, Design-for-All and Lifespan Design. It is not a design style but an orientation to any design process that starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user. It has a parallel in the green design movement that also offers a framework for design problem-solving based on the core value of environmental responsibility. Universal Design and green design are comfortably two sides of the same coin but at different evolutionary stages. Green design focuses on environmental sustainability; Universal Design on social sustainability.
It is important to note that the assumption that various terms - Universal, Inclusive, Design-for-All - generally have been considered synonyms. There is an increasing dialogue that questions whether "Inclusive" and "Universal" are synonymous or different. The UN's Ad Hoc Committee developing a new Convention on the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities is currently grappling with choosing one or the other. The primary differentiation that is evolving has to do with "Inclusive" being interpreted to be broader, to embrace diversity in social and economic circumstances in addition to variation in age and ability. This is likely to become a more overt dialogue in coming years. The UN's Ad Hoc Committee can be expected to make a decision within 2006 as its work concludes and moves toward acceptance and implementation.
Demographic shifts in the US and internationally were a primary catalyst to Universal Design. Across the developed world and the evolving nations people live longer than at any other time in human history. In the US, that averages 30 years more life than 100 years ago. Design is just catching up to these demographic facts.
World Health Organization's New Definition of Disability
The way disability is defined and understood has also changed in the last decade. Disability was once assumed as a way to characterize a particular set of largely stable limitations. Now the World Health Organization (WHO) has moved toward a new international classification system, the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF 2001). It emphasizes functional status over diagnoses. The new system is not just about people with traditionally acknowledged disabilities diagnostically categorized but about all people. For the first time, the ICF also calls for the elimination of distinctions, explicitly or implicitly, between health conditions that are 'mental' or 'physical.'
The new ICF focuses on analyzing the relationship between capacity and performance. If capacity is greater than performance then that gap should be addressed through both removing barriers and identifying facilitators. The new WHO ICF specifically references Universal Design as a central concept that can serve to identify facilitators that can benefit all people.
The WHO defines disability as a contextual variable, dynamic over time and in relation to circumstances. One is more or less disabled based on the interaction between the person and the individual, institutional and social environments. The ICF also acknowledges that the prevalence of disability corresponds to social and economic status. The 2001 ICF provides a platform that supports Universal Design as an international priority for reducing the experience of disability and enhancing everyone's experience and performance.