The Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) has been a leader in the global movement for universal or inclusive design since the 1990s.  From the start, our education and design non-profit’s mission has been centered on the critical role of design in social equity.  Then called the Adaptive Environments Center, we were one of five US organizations that developed the Principles of Universal Design in 1997.  IHCD hosted or co-hosted five international conferences on universal design between 1998 and 2006 and countless smaller forums, publications, lectures and events since then.  

Why shift the language to ‘inclusive’ over ‘universal’ now?  Our colleagues in the United Kingdom have always opted for inclusive design. But we have arrived here from paying attention to our own experience. IHCD has direct daily experience as educators, consultants, and designers.  Every day we make the case for design that anticipates the widest possible spectrum of people across the spectrum of ability, age, culture, and socio-economic status.  We were motivated to shift language for these reasons:

  • In a world in which human diversity is not celebrated but threatened, inclusive design more directly states a commitment to not only acknowledge but celebrate diversity.
  • Inclusive design resonates with a wide audience who can intuitively grasp the idea.
  • Inclusive design more accurately communicates our conviction that this practice is a continuous process of evolving ever more responsive solutions to a changing human reality.  We witness different patterns of functional limitations, rising rates of natural disasters, and increasing socio-economic disparities.  There may not be a single solution that works for all but a quest for balance of everyone’s needs matters.

21st Century Demographics as a Catalyst

In the 21st century, another intersection of cultural trends poses a radical challenge to architecture and design. This time, it is a demographic tsunami competing for attention in a world still newly awakened to a shared responsibility for sustainability.

Global Aging  

  • Global aging is the most stunning accomplishment of the last hundred years and it demands a comparable sense of urgency to environmental sustainability if we are to make it work.  
  • Today, only Japan has a population where the percentage of people 60 and over is 30% of the population.  By 2050, it’s expected that 64 nations will have 30% or more of their population over 60.  
  • The story is not limited to the world’s most affluent nations. Today fifteen countries have more than ten million people sixty or over; seven of them in developing countries.
  • We don’t have the option to cheer our good fortune and our thirty-year ‘longevity dividend’ and get on with our longer lives.  If we do nothing, our demographic bonus catapults us into untenable social and economic conditions in which a sizable portion of elders are physically and economically dependent.

A Global Shift in the Reasons for Functional Limitation

We once assumed disability to be the fixed state of a minority who had congenital impairments, birth trauma, or who acquired significant functional impairments from injury or illness.  The increasing experience of community integration and accessibility offered evidence quickly that diagnosis does not determine outcomes. Now, with longer lives and high survival rates, difference in ability has increased to become a predictable human experience, at least episodically, for everyone.   As a demographic category, disability is a human characteristic similar to race or gender.  An individual may or may not choose it as part of their personal identity.  For some, there is a sense of community that can be a source of pride and strength.  For many others, especially those with non-apparent conditions, there is little impetus to disclose a disability.  It is likely that the sharp global shift away from categorization by diagnoses was made possible by the many thousands of people who reinvented the experience of disability by living unique self-directed lives because they were free to do so for the first time. With the shift in focus to a continuum of health and function, we leave behind notions of a sharp line between health and disability and recognize the mutability of individual limitations. In summer of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control released new prevalence data for disability with the announcement that “1 in 4 adults live with a disability.” [https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html]

  • Arthritis, not surprisingly, in all its manifestations, leads as the most common reason for disability in the U. S.  Though common among people over 65, two-thirds of people with arthritis are under 65.  
  • Brain-based conditions including mental health conditions, learning and attention disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and sensory processing disorders are now the second most common reason for functional limitation across the lifespan.  For the US population of K-12 schoolchildren with an Individual Education Plan, brain-based conditions are 80% of the total.
  • Prevalence of hearing loss is now acknowledged as significant across the population partly because of the aging of the population and partly because we are asking about it in standard census questions.
  • One constant remain in place: the disparity in rates of disability between poor and non-poor. Poor households have rates of disability 150 percent of non-poor families.

In the twenty-first century, the social art of design must find ways to respond to a new world shaped by our collective good fortune in which we can expect to live longer and survive more than at any time in human history. Design is a key to that being a challenge to celebrate and not a shared burden.

Universal/Inclusive Design Evolves from Accessibility

Both the U.S. and the U.K. had extensive history with mandates for equal rights and design standards primarily focused on architectural access by wheelchairs users.  It had become clear that many other people benefitted from the standards despite that narrow focus.  Curb cuts, ramps and accessible vertical access made wheeled luggage the rational choice for everyone.  Few people used wheelchairs but ten times that number had difficulty walking.

Two figures emerged at approximately the same time in the 1990s with a shared perspective that it was time to think more expansively about designing for everyone.  Both Selwyn Goldsmith, born in 1932 in Nottinghamshire, and Ronald (Ron) Mace, born in 1941 in North Carolina, were licensed architects who had survived polio and used wheelchairs.  Both had the credibility of being wheelchair users bent on summoning attention to a bigger idea.  For them, mandated accessibility was a valuable floor but too narrowly focused for an increasingly diverse world.

Universal Design in the US

Ron Mace, FAIA was a key figure in the development in the U.S. of the Principles of Universal Design in 1997.   Ten authors (Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, and Gregg Vanderheiden) from five U.S. organizations compiled the Principles. They were copyrighted to North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design.  The definition of universal design introduces the principles: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest expect possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” The seven principles follow with a key concept and definition. The full set also includes brief guidelines and key elements.

Evolution of Inclusive Design

The evolution toward inclusive design began in the 1950s with a new attention to design for people with disabilities. In Europe, Japan, and the United States, barrier-free design developed to remove obstacles in the built environment for people with physical disabilities. It followed the social policy of moving people with disabilities from institutional settings to the community. Barrier-free design still tended to be segregated and special, especially for people with serious physical limitations, primarily mobility impairments.

By the 1970s, parts of Europe and the United States were beginning to move beyond the emphasis on special solutions tailored to individuals and toward the idea of normalization and integration. Increasingly, the terminology of choice was accessible design. In the United States, the disability rights movement, taking shape in the mid-70s built upon the vision of civil rights articulated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act for racial minorities. People speaking for themselves argued for equality of opportunity and against paternalism and care-taking. For the first time, design was recognized as a condition for achieving civil rights.

The legal standards used the term accessible design. Beginning with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the United States initially confined parties responsible for accessible design to those entities that received federal financial assistance.

The United States, led by the disability community, established the most expansive legal requirements with the passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. It substantially exceeded the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and derived most of its language directly from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with additional requirements for accessible design. It substantially expanded the scope of responsible parties to include both public and private entities regardless of whether they received federal funds. The Act's Title II regulation covers "public entities" including any state or local government and any of its departments, agencies, or other instrumentalities. All activities, services, and programs of public entities are covered, including activities of state legislatures and courts, schools, town meetings, police and fire departments, motor vehicle licensing, and employment.

Even more dramatically, the ADA defined responsibilities of private entities and used the term "place of public accommodation' in its Title III. A public accommodation is a private entity that owns, operates, leases, or leases to, a place of public accommodation. Places of public accommodation include a wide range of entities, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers. Private clubs and religious organizations are exempt from the ADA's title III requirements for public accommodations.

The ADA also established protections for people with disabilities in the workplace. It required making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to, and usable by, an individual with a disability.

The ADA does not cover private housing. However, the Fair Housing Act of 1988 does include specific accessibility requirements to ensure non-discrimination towards people with disabilities in multi-family housing. Accessible design requirements are primarily focused on design that meets the needs of wheelchair users. The Fair Housing Act defines discrimination in housing against persons with disabilities to include a failure "to design and construct" certain new multi-family dwellings so that they are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

In the US and around the world, housing has been a primary emphasis of inclusive design advocacy, research and implementation.

Digital Accessibility and Inclusive Design

In 1998, the U.S. Congress affirmed the significance of the design of information and technology as a means to equality and opportunity for people with disabilities when it amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The requirements applied specifically to the federal government though some entities in the public and private sector have adopted the requirements of Section 508 as policy. In deference to the presumption that technology could be characterized by constant innovation, the 508 standards for the first time used performance measures instead of fixed requirements. In the initial performance measures, a primary concern was to create digital products that would be usable by persons who were blind and low-vision, especially those that used assistive technology.

Inclusive design in the digital realm has been a leading area of focus for the international movement. As is true in other areas of design, web accessibility has been more expansive than the legal requirements for accessibility both in terms of considering a broader spectrum of users and promoting market opportunity and advantage rather than focusing on meeting minimum requirements.

Examples of tech industry commitment to inclusive design:

Global strategies, standards, and supporting resources from the World Wide Web Consortium to help you make the Web more accessible to people with disabilities and inclusive to all: W3, Microsoft, Samsung