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Over the past 15 years in the U. S., Universal Design has become an increasingly-used, but also mis-used concept applied to the design of consumer products and public and private places. The term, UD, is used interchangeably with Inclusive Design most often, but Design for ALL and Lifetime or Lifespan Design are other synonyms. In Europe, the phrases, "Design for All" and "Inclusive Design" predominate. Let's look at the original UD definitions, evolutionary terms, what/how to convey to teens, and our "definitive" conclusions.

Note: Section GS-4 presents the principles in detail, while UDLS Lesson One presents both definitions and principles in simplified form. But the UDLS and Guide Site both use the same examples.


In the mid-Eighties, Ron Mace, a North Carolina architect and wheelchair user who wanted to go where everyone else went and to be as much like everyone else as possible, created the Universal Design concept. Later, he and other UD Pioneers worked to develop and reach consensus on seven UD Principles that operationalize the concept (Center for UD, 1997).

Early in the Millennium, Mace's definition remains current: Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be USABLE by ALL people, to the greatest extent possible, withOUT the need for adaptation or specialized design. Note that he didn't mention accessibility or give specifics on how to make the designs usable by ALL.

Most American designers who participate in the Universal Design Movement have at least bought into the SPIRIT of Mace's definition. Beyond its core premises of accessibility and INclusivity (EVERYONE can use-no one is EXcluded), UD definitions vary somewhat , dependent upon the designer's challenge, the intended users' needs, or producers' and marketers' profit motives.

Another expert definition is that of Elaine Ostroff, a pre-eminent UD pioneer and Mace compatriot: UD is an approach to design that honors human diversity, addressing the right for everyone--from childhood into the oldest years--to use all space, products, and information in an independent, inclusive, and equal way. Further, the UD process invites designers to go BEYOND building or access code compliance to create excellent, HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN (Ostroff, 2002).

For a European comparison: INCLUSIVE Design is a way of designing products and environments so that they are USABLE AND APPEALING to everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance. Inclusive designers work with users to remove barriers in the social, technical, political, and economic processes underpinning design (Ormerud, 2004). CLICK HERE for more on Inclusive Design: http://www.inclusivedesign.org.uk/

Ormerud's rationale and conclusions are instructive. An inclusively designed environment considers people's diversity and removes UNnecessary barriers and exclusions in a way that benefits us all. If people are EXcluded from products and facilities that provide housing, education, and employment, then discrimination occurs and opportunities for integration between people with disabilities and the Mainstream society ARE LOST.

The following box of additional UD definitions reveal its still-evolving, interdisciplinary nature, plus newer vocabulary (the same box is in UDLS Lesson 1). The entries also show that people involved with an innovation such as Universal Design may come to the concept with directly opposing objectives (e.g., addressing unmet human needs vs. selling a product to make a profit).

EVA: Insert box (Figure GS3-1) here, in a box.


Although Universal Design name recognition has increased slowly over the past 15 years, it's still evolving. Early negative reactions came from architects who first thought UD meant "ONE design fits all." Other people thought that UD was a synonym for wheelchair accessibility and ADA compliance (WRONG!!). Further, UD practitioners frowned upon adding the negative qualifier, "NOT just for the disabled," to the definition.

The Question of the Day is whether the term, UD, is clear and readily understood by the general public. Steinfeld suggests that a clearly defined concept that is meaningful to ordinary people without prior knowledge or exposure to the field will reduce resistance and lead to greater adoption at a faster rate (listserv, Feb. 2005). One problem with the original UD definition is that it uses too many words and requires the UD Principles to describe the concept completely.

The term, Universal Design, usually prompts an inquiry as to what UD means. The word, inclusive, is more intuitive to a broader audience. In line with the diversity concept, "inclusive" suggests accommodating the needs of MORE people. Conversely, inclusive housing refers to affordable (not-necessarily accessible) homes mixed among market rate units, implying that buyers of those homes will NOT encounter discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Neither application is wrong, but....

To muddy the water further, a new American television commercial aired in early 2005 with no narrative--just words, images, and music-ending with the phrase, "Design For All" (yes, you saw that term a minute ago). The theme was DESIGN and how it affects our lives--with no mention of disability or aging-just good design for all kinds of people and purposes. http://www.target.com/designforall/home.jhtml

The Design for All commercial set the stage for a new marketing campaign by the Target stores. Rather than touting a line of UD products, however, Target is promoting timeless products of good design for use by a diverse population. Other firms have used "real life, adaptive, and trans-generational design" to market products and homes that may OR may not be universally-designed.

UD: A SIMPLE concept? IF and when Universal Design and its definition are copyrighted or codified into legislation or government regulations, we can delete much of the previous page. But like other new innovations, the concept needs to be test-driven, its definition should be consensual, and the term must be clear and easily grasped by the public. We'll probably have to keep that page for a while and make revisions.


Before you face the young lions in the risky arena of group discussion, think, question, compare, and contrast the multiple UD definitions. The definitions' variety can stimulate beginner AND advanced levels of debate, starting with middle schoolers up through the mighty senior high students. We offer the following variety of ways to approach the definitions.

First, have the teens review ALL the online UD definitions, then before starting a discussion, have each jot down his or her initial reactions, questions, and opinions about the definitions as a group. Collect and save their individual reactions, and as the UD Unit ends, return them for youth to reflect on their earlier responses and identify any changed viewpoints.

Guides may print and cut apart the online definitions and have teens each draw one from a hat, and re-phrase them IN FEWER WORDS-of their own. They need not memorize the UD definitions in Lesson 1. Suggest that they focus on the Mace and Ostroff originals, and identify the terms and phrases repeated most often among all the definitions.

After each youth completes a list of oft-repeated words and phrases, have each small group use theirs to develop a composite UD definition. Finally, have the entire class or youth group judge whether each others' groups arrived at short, clear, and easily grasped composite descriptions of this "UD Thing."

As teens discuss the various UD definitions, obvious commonalities and specific differences are likely to emerge. For example, students in high school Art, Building Trades, Family/Consumer Sciences, or Technology Education, and in Middle School vs. Junior High classes and after-school programs probably will define and apply UD in specific, different ways.

Help your charges to realize that UD meanings may vary depending on the context (including the specific design application, the user's age level,...). Despite all the variations and conditions, see if the youth can agree that Universal Design IS basic to ALL people, ALL their lives.

The variety of evolving definitions has raised concern among UD advocates from varied backgrounds. For example, Dutcher (listserv, 2003) that the UD term... leaves us wondering...effectively makes the point that UD seeks to meet individual needs" via affordable mass-market products rather than special medical or rehab devices.


A critical point about the various UD definitions is that before starting any discussion involving UD, participants first may need to reach consensus on a composite meaning. Thus, all will 'speak the same language' and avoid having a potentially productive conversation break down over semantic differences.

See if students can understand why to reach consensus, their composite definitions will need to be VERY short. They'll see that "rule" again in UDLS Lesson 10 in the discussion of legislated (vs. voluntary) Visitability requirements for new housing.

Whatever the UD concept is called may be of LESS importance than a common outcome. Current marketing and media advertising "hooks" for universally-designed housing include: Easy-Living or Greater-Later Homes; Flex-Housing; Lifetime Living; User-Friendly Homes; Independence Guaranteed; and Forever-Young Villas. The question is whether they all share specific features that serve a common purpose.

Quotable Quote: The UD design approach incorporates products and building features and elements that, to the greatest extent possible, can be used by EVERYONE. While accessible design requirements are specified by codes for ONLY some buildings and aimed at benefitting ONLY some people [those with mobility limits], UD targets ALL people of ALL ages, sizes, and abilities, and is applied to ALL buildings (Center for Universal Design, n.d.).


The "not just for people with disabilities" part is key. Despite limitations, no one wants to be perceived as "different" or "special." The basic premise of physical accessibility makes being one of the crowd possible AND simultaneously makes life safer, easier, more convenient, for everyone else at some point in their life. Do a reality check after the definitions discussion and activities to see if the teens "get it." Or do they make the common disconnect that wheelchair accessibility is an expensive accommodation that's needed by only a few people.

EVA: Figure GS3-1 is at the end of this file..., just move it up where it fits. Thanks.


  • Universal Design is NOT a set formula (O'Brien in Rustaccia, 1999).

  • UD environments are flexible, human-factored and ergonomic in/outdoor spaces and landscapes that fit everyone where they live, work, or play-and discriminate against NO one (Source unknown).

  • UD creates products (devices, environments, systems) that are usable by people with the widest possible range of ABILITIES who are operating within the widest possible range of SITUATIONS (places, conditions, and circum-stances) that are commercially practical (Vanderheiden, 2003).

  • The "Four A's": UD is Accessible, Adaptable (or Adjustable), Attractive (or Aesthetic), and Affordable (Behar, 1991).

  • UD is an integrated design approach used to create functional and convenient products and environments that are as usable as possible by as many people as possible, whether young or old, healthy or impaired (Rustaccia, 1999).

  • UD is a process rather than a goal--a way to minimize the mismatches between the conditions of people vs. objects, products, and the man-made environment (Scott, 2003).

  • We have universal, accessible, adaptable, and visitable design-each with their own characteristics but with overlapping features-sometimes used INappropriately, when it's really a custom design, NOT a universal design (Dobson, 2003).

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