Easter Eggs


Universal Design is a new-old concept, rooted in the Disability Movement but applicable to the majority of the world's societies. UD is NOT a trend, but an enduring design approach that assumes the range of human ability is ORDINARY, NOT "special" (Ostroff, 2001).

The next several pages race through 50+ years of UD history, originating in Scandinavia and moving to the U. S., where Mace created the UD concept in 1985. Since the late Nineties, multiple, concurrent, and GLOBAL UD-related events have documented the increasing UD acceptance and use.

After introducing normalization, deinstitutionalization, and community mainstreaming, we review early U. S. accessibility policies; beyond-access to adaptability and civil rights; fair housing compliance and building code changes; UD in the Millennium; the Visit*Ability Movement; and final UD evolutionary challenges. We linked an optional, abridged version of this history lesson to the end of the UD Learnsite's Orientation page.


The Universal Design concept is a long-term, indirect result of U. S. adoption (during the 1950s) of the Normalization Principle from Scandinavia. Under Normalization, Swedes with disabilities lived in their home communities and as much as possible, experienced the same activities as their age cohorts. Instead of being isolated in institutions, they were mainstreamed into community life withOUT separate accommodations or "special" treatment.

For several decades after the Fifties, U. S. normalization policies gradually caused nationwide DEinstitutionalization of persons with disabilities. Hundreds of state residential institutions for people with physical impairments, developmental disabilities, and mental illness eventually were closed. Thousands of patients returned to their home communities, but many soon found that living "normally" among the able-bodied majority was severely limited by widespread and often permanent PHYSICAL AND ATTITUDINAL BARRIERS.

During the Sixties, parents and other disability advocates began calling for federal requirements that communities provide new and renovated barrier-free places to GUARANTEE THE CIVIL RIGHTS of the newly mainstreamed. The resultant, multiple state- and federally-legislated access regulations were "similar yet different." We highlight the key public policies below, using the alpha-numeric, shorthand titles by which they are known.


By the mid-Seventies, various state statutes, a voluntary national standard, and successive federal laws had produced accessibility regulations, rehabilitation training, and services for community-based persons with disabilities. The policy intent was to enable them to live as independently as possible, no longer publicly-supported dependents but self-sufficient, tax-paying citizens. Despite a common goal of wheelchair accessibility, those requirements (drafted by different groups at various levels) UNintentionally lacked consistency.

The first real progress toward physically barrier-free environments resulted from: 1) The American National Standards Institute's voluntary guidelines for accessible PUBLIC buildings (ANSI A117.1-1961), which became the model for later state legislation; 2) The 1968 federal Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) focused on physical barriers in PUBLIC buildings; and 3) Section 504 of the1973 federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act was the first to extend access quotas to public housing. The Big Three ALL focused on the wheelchair as the "least common denominator." Without access, most wheelchair users could go nowhere unless they crawled or were carried.

For persons who have MOBILITY limits, every OTHER action depends upon first getting into a building or place. In the Sixties, most private homes had interior doors ranging from 24 to 28 inches wide. Yet standard, manual wheelchairs were 27 inches wide, EXCLUDING the fingers that pushed the wheels through the door frame (preferably withOUT skinning the knuckles).

Originally, ANSI standard A117.1-1961, the Architectural Barriers Act, and the Section 504 requirements specified that in the public and federally-assisted buildings they covered, ALL access modifications were to be built-in or fixed (permanent). The most frequent results of fixed access were an institutional look and higher construction costs than those for standard, NON-accessible structures.

By the early Seventies, many Vietnam veterans with disabilities had returned home. Finding wheelchair life to be very isolating, many vets began to protest publicly against prevalent architectural, transportation, and attitudinal barriers. In the Eighties' movie, COMING HOME, newly-disabled Ron Kovacs returned to a society that either ignored him or UNintentionally discriminated against him and others like him. The vets began to unite members of the widely-varied "special populations" plus families, aides, and advocates into a political force for equality.

A leader among U. S. disability advocates was architect and wheelchair user, Ron Mace, who was instrumental in revising the 1974 North Carolina State Building Code, the first to go BEYOND access-only regulations. The NC Code added two new concepts: Adaptability guidelines and voluntary residential applications. About ten years later, Mace included accessibility, adaptability, residential applications, AND MUCH MORE in creating the Universal Design concept.

The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later re-titled, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) enabled children who otherwise would have been institutionalized at an early age, to grow up at home and attend public schools. But five years later, most American schools still had many architectural barriers, and few offered special education classes or assistive services for children with disabilities.

As the Seventies closed, enforcement of the two primarily public building access regulations (ANSI and ABA) was sporadic and weak. Initial opposition to the Section 504 public housing access requirements was based on "higher costs for only a few people." After Section 504 implementation and ten years' occupancy, ironically (?), users with disabilities were DISsatisfied with most of the accessible housing produced by the regulations (U.S. DHUD, 1989). But it WAS a START!

Footnote: The 1984 Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards signaled the BEGINNING of LESS confusing and MORE consistent, or at least cross-referenced federal access regulations. The UFAS combined the previously separate access requirements of several federal agencies into one set. Most relevant here are the U. S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD-funded public/assisted housing) and Defense (military housing).


During the Eighties, the adaptability concept (developed to solve problems created by badly designed fixed-access housing) gained acceptance and was codified into law. Concurrently, while urging faster removal of architectural AND attitudinal barriers, members of the Disability Community moved on to demand equal rights.

Adaptability (or adjustability) was first used nationwide in the 1984 Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards and the 1986 edition of ANSI Standard A117.1.
In both cases, the use of adaptability was limited to residential kitchens and bathrooms. But they DID allow the design of accessible units to have either FIXED access OR adaptability.

Adaptable housing looks like a typical home, but is designed to be changed easily to meet needs of specific users by adding adjustable items (Center for Accessible Housing, 1991). Residential examples of adaptability features include height-adjustable counter tops and cabinets; bathroom walls reinforced to allow future grab bar installation; and products that give audible signals for people with low vision and visible warnings to the hearing impaired.

After its "official" acceptance, adaptability began to appear in housing for older adults and people with disabilities. Designers, builders, and landlords found that homes and apartments with adjustable features are more flexible, and therefore more marketable to more people of all ages. Adaptability to age- and size-related changes and temporary vs. permanent conditions became an important and well-appreciated (if not well-known) aspect of Universal Design.

By the late Eighties, the Disability Community was a major force in advocating equal rights for people with disabilities. The capstones were passage of the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA, 1988) and its better-known successor, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990). The ADA was signed into law by then-President George Bush, SENIOR.

As CIVIL RIGHTS laws first, the FHAA and ADA added people with disabilities to the list of "protected classes." Both laws also include accessibility design and construction guidelines intended to eliminate DISCRIMINATION BY DESIGN.
Finally, FHAA and ADA both cover privately-owned buildings whether OR NOT federally funded. Beyond those similarities lie the big differences in scope that are summarized below.

The FHAA Accessibility Guidelines cover private new MULTIFAMILY HOUSING STRUCTURES that contain four or more units. ALL multifamily dwellings in buildings with 4+ units PLUS one or more elevators must comply. In buildings with 4+ units and NO elevator, all GROUND-FLOOR dwellings must comply. The FHAAAG require inclusion of seven specific access features in each covered unit. They are listed in Lesson 10 of the UD Learnsite or may be seen online. CLICK HERE.

Conversely, the ADA covers COMMERCIAL FACILITIES AND PUBLIC ACCOMMODATIONS. Many people use ADA generically in referring to ALL federal accessibility regulations. Despite such MISconceptions, ADA's focus is NOT residential and it does NOT cover PRIVATE housing, EXCEPT for PUBLIC areas of apartment buildings (e.g., rental offices and restrooms).


During the Nineties, the FHAA Access Guidelines (aka FHAA design and construction requirements) and enforcement procedures were developed, proposed, reviewed and revised, and finally implemented. HUD was designated to receive disability-based discrimination complaints filed with local and state Fair Housing and Human Relations agencies about NONcompliance with the FHAAAG. Cases that HUD deems to be potential violations are referred to the U. S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

Compliance issues involving the federal FHAAAG vs. local and state building codes arose from the FHAA's status as a civil rights law. As noted above, FHAAAG compliance is complaint-driven. Although many local and state building departments had adopted the ANSI A117.1 standard for public buildings, many did NOT incorporate the FHAA Access Guidelines into their codes. Hence, after the March 1991 effective date, pre-construction reviews by MANY local building inspectors did NOT include checking for FHAAAG compliance.

As a result of confusion or ignorance among developers, builders, and their designers about the FHAAAG, thousands of INaccessible multifamily housing STRUCTURES have been built since 1991 (each with four or more units, and many with elevators). As the Nineties ended, alleged FHAA violations began to appear on federal court dockets. Concurrently, U. S. building code organizations began revising their model codes, in hopes that they could become equivalent "safe harbors" for FHAA compliance.

On behalf of residents with disabilities, disability advocacy groups and Centers for Independent Living file most complaints about FHAAAG NONcompliance. The complaints are submitted to local and state fair housing agencies for investigation and possible referral to the next level of enforcement (DHUD). Cases referred by HUD to the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are filed by their Civil Rights Division with the appropriate U. S. District Court.

Between January 2001 and late 2005, almost 170 cases alleging disability-based housing discrimination were filed by the DOJ. Of those, nearly 40 were violations of the FHAA design and construction requirements. An industry source noted that successful lawsuits against builders who did NOT comply with the FHAAAG had become widespread and were "slam dunk losers for the defendant." The author also indicated that ignorance is NOT a defense and court settlements could be very costly for developers, builders, architects, and engineers (Nation's Building News, 2005).

A MAJOR 2004 FHAA settlement affected 4,000+ ground floor apartments in 34 complexes in six states in the mid-South. The court ruled that the architect, contractor, and design consultants violated both the FHAAAG and the ADAAG by designing and constructing the complexes in a manner that left them INaccessible to people with disabilities. The defendants agreed to make access retrofits to the units and their common areas. Also, a $1.2 million fund was established to compensate individuals injured by the INaccessible housing (HM listserv, 2004).

In the first case involving public housing developments, the Baltimore Housing Authority was found to be in violation of the FHAA. That settlement involved over 12,000 HUD-assisted housing units. Another case, filed in late 2004 but not settled by December 2005, may set a new "largest settlement" record. The developer, builders, and architects of over 100 new and renovated complexes in 18 states and the District of Columbia allegedly violated the FHAA design and construction requirements (listserv, 2005).

The International Code Council (ICC) began to work with HUD, the National Association of Home Builders, and disability organizations during 2000 to ensure that the accessibility requirements in the International Building Code (IBC) are at least equivalent to the FHAAAG. In 2001, ICC published its Code Requirements for Housing Accessibility (CRHA) that met or exceeded the minimum federal civil rights requirements, the FHAAAG, AND incorporated the access requirements of standard ANSI A117.1-1998. HUD approved these more consistent access regulations as the first "safe harbor" for FHAA compliance.

In early 2005, the ICC and HUD reached agreement confirming that the IBC's 2003 edition provides protection equivalent to its 2001 CRHA. As a result, in communities where the IBC is in effect, local building code inspectors now review plans for FHAAAG compliance. If necessary, corrections are made BEFORE the multifamily housing is built (MUCH cheaper than later paying retrofit costs PLUS attorney fees, court costs and fines).

HUD now recognizes seven "safe harbors" for FHAA compliance, including the FHAAAG, the 2003 IBC, the most recent ANSI-A117.1 edition, and various combinations of the three. The AWESOME Fair Housing FIRST website includes the above, plus frequent FHAA questions and answers, summaries of court cases, key issues in design and construction, and training, educational, and legal materials, many in downloadable PDF files. It also has related links to the ADAAG, Section 504, and the UFAS. CLICK HERE

To view or download HUD's Fair Housing Act Design Manual, CLICK HERE.
For a list of jurisdictions using the International Building Code, CLICK HERE.


As the Twentieth Century closed, the U. S. Supreme Court decision re the State of Missouri v. L.C. (1999, aka the Olmstead Decision) set the stage for increased Universal Design activity. Post-Millennium implementation of an amended Section 508 of the 1973 Rehab Act provided further incentives for UD.

Coincidentally, the U. S. design community began to recognize that UD creates places and products that are usable AND desired by a broad range of people. Housing designs that "fit" folks with functional limits began to move from narrow building code compliance that met the specialized needs of a few (e.g., nursing facilities and group homes), to a more inclusive design process for EVERYONE (Preiser & Ostroff, 2001).

The 1999 Olmstead Decision ruled that persons with disabilities could NOT be kept in institutions against their will. But after deinstitutionalization, the new generation of newly mainstreamed (also) faced very few adequate housing resources. They and the increasing numbers of frail older adults UNable to remain in their longtime homes compounded a long-time problem. The never-yet-met U. S. NEED for affordable supportive housing AND community-based services was rising faster than ever.

Soon after the Millennium, the amended Section 508 was finally implemented, requiring federal agencies to buy electronic and information technology (EIT) products that are fully usable by people with disabilities. Thus since 2003, federal agencies' procurement procedures have provided strong UD incentives for firms who want to sell their EIT products to the U. S. government (a HUGE market!).

Section 508 has great implications for continuing global UD diffusion. The federal $$ motive for including UD is less admirable than "doing the right thing." But the end results will be "UD squared"--wide scale UD diffusion via UD EIT! Fabulous side effects include new jobs for people with disabilities AND relief for other employees who've been subject to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or other occupational disabilities in NONergonomic, NONadjustable workplaces.

On the international scene, Asian designers and manufacturers are busy producing innovative UD products for their respected elders, PLUS EIT and other UD exports to the U. S. In Japan, the International UD Association was founded. The fourth international UD conference, held in Rio de Janeiro in December, 2004, gathered hundreds. UD gurus from all over the globe alternately toasted the success and mourned the slow rate of adoption of Universal Design, a multi-faceted, high carat concept. CLICK HERE for a wealth of interdisciplinary presentations: http://www.

To the west, the European Union resolved that UD be included in the curricula for all professions that work in the built environment (e.g., urban planners, architects, engineers). The United Kingdom subsequently developed a working document that identifies the content and context for teaching Inclusive Design. They've already introduced it to U. S. architectural educators (UD Education Online, 2003). Can such a curriculum be far behind for US?


Amid the warming Millennial climate for voluntary Universal Design, came a surprise. Prominent Disability Community member, Eleanor Smith, boldly proposed that new single-family homes be required BY LAW to include AT LEAST MINIMAL access (known as "VIZ" by those in the know). Courtesy of the 2000 Summer Olympics, she and her Visit*Ability advocates started sprinting, pole vaulting, and swimming in Atlanta, where Habitat for Humanity built probably the first single-family, 45-unit VIZ subdivision.

Since its 1999 advent, growing numbers of cities and states have enacted Visit*Ability ordinances or laws requiring that new single-family, duplex, and triplex homes be built with minimal access features (Truesdale & Steinfeld, 2001). By late 2005, federal VIZ legislation was pending for the THIRD time in the U. S. Congress. Actually, Congress enacted the FIRST VIZ law in 1988, but it (FHAA) requires more than three basic access features, and applies only to MULTIFAMILY housing.

Although VIZ is only the bottom rung on the UD continuum, its requirements COULD produce a significant increase in the U. S. inventory of accessible new single-family dwellings AT MINIMAL ADDITIONAL COST. VIZ or basic access enables a guest with a mobility disability to enter a home without being carried, enjoy a meal, and use the host's bathroom (Kochera, 2002; Smith, 1996).

As child polio survivor, Eleanor Smith missed many social occasions because her wheelchair couldn't get into other people's homes. She recommends that 'VIZ' regulations require three basic access features: 1) One no-step entry at the front, side, or rear of the home OR through a patio or garage; 2) entry and first-floor interior doors with minimum 32-inch clearances; and 3) at least a half-bath on the main floor.

The Concrete Change VIZ advocacy organization (founded and directed by Ms. Smith) and the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (DRACH) together are promoting and developing strategies to enact VIZ ordinances, legislation, and voluntary programs. VIZ laws or ordinances, if adequately enforced, WILL produce new 1-3-family homes with basic access. Ms. Smith emphasizes that a legitimate VIZ law MUST contain an enforcement mechanism.

Legislated programs have produced the vast majority of the early VIZ homes. Rather than using public funds to pay for the added features, these VIZ ordinances and laws include UNfunded mandates that require builders to include them (and pass the costs to buyers in the new-home prices). To get a VIZ ordinance or law passed by an elected governing body, the list of required features must be VERY SHORT. (Note: The FHAA and ADA both include UNfunded mandates for access features.) Voluntary VIZ programs are backed by local incentives that offset builders' costs for the required basic access features. Possible incentives to add VIZ features in new 1-3-family homes include allowing builders to raise VIZ subdivision density slightly and waiving selected local government fees for builders who comply voluntarily. Voluntary programs also may include additional or optional features such as the main floor bedroom and a full bath with a 5-foot wheelchair turning circle that are included in the Easy Living Homes (ELH) program. CLICK HERE.

Voluntary VIZ efforts are few in number because local elected officials are averse to expenditures for the few that result in increased property taxes for all. On the other hand, builder adoption of basic access requirements (without incentives) MAY negate the need for, and thus defeat "UNdesirable" VIZ proposals that carry unfunded mandates. Two voluntary efforts are the proposed federal Inclusive Housing Design for All Act and the ELH program.

Smith attributes the successful rapid, broad application of 3-feature VIZ requirements to their extreme simplicity of content, rigorous prioritization, and insistence on "just DOING it" (rather than voluntarily producing a few units to forestall legislated VIZ ). To avoid damaging VIZ/basic access efforts, Ms. Smith advises against using the VIZ term if extra features are added. To highlight such "livability bonuses," marketing terms probably would be more effective.

Whether local governments pass the cost of their builder-incentives to taxpayers, OR builders pass the costs of mandated VIZ to individual home buyers in higher new-home prices (and higher property taxes), opponents of VIZ programs are likely to raise the housing affordability issue. But as noted below, the added cost of VIZ features represent only 1-2% of the new-home cost, depending on the dwelling unit size and amenities and whether it is on a concrete slab or basement.

Introduced in 2002 and re-introduced in 2005, the proposed federal Inclusive Housing Design for All Act (IHDA, H. B. 1441) would cover ONLY new 1-3-family homes that involve public assistance (including HUD programs, military housing, disaster relief). Not surprisingly, the key issues about the IHDA are its potential costs in a tight federal budget era, and who pays the added building costs (directly or indirectly)?

Proponents suggest that the long-term social and monetary values of VIZ benefits outweigh their one-time, minimal added cost. VIZ advocates estimate the total added cost of basic access features to be less than $100 for new homes built on concrete slabs, and little over $600 for homes built over crawlspaces or basements (Schakowsky, 2005).

An important example is the 2002 Pima County (including Phoenix) ordinance that requires developers to make ALL new private homes minimally accessible to people with disabilities (over 6,000 new units built by late 2005). The Arizona Supreme Court justices UPHELD a lower Court of Appeals decision that PC's Inclusive Home Design ordinance is constitutional and a valid exercise of the County's governing powers.

As a result of political compromise, the Pima County access ordinance allows doors with only 30-inch (vs. 32") clearance. But the AZ Supreme Court decision (still) provides a foundation of case law that can help Visitability advocates if they face legal challenges. That ruling could ALSO forestall future attempts at lawsuits AGAINST VIZ legislative proposals.

The AWESOME Concrete Change website has a photo gallery showing VIZ vs. ugly entry steps; VIZ townhouses, homes on concrete slabs, crawlspaces, basements, AND steep terrains; VIZ homes in Bolingbrook, IL (a super-VIZ success!); AND a GINGERBREAD VIZ house created by disability advocates in Rochester, NY. Also: teaching tools ("how to make change"); fact sheets on VIZ, VIZ costs, and the IHDA; and a DVD all about 0-step entries.


Universal innovations in consumer product design (particularly in assistive and high technology) continue to increase steadily in both number and marketability. Progress in universally-designed private housing is tied to accessibility, the core premise of the concept. But the FHAA and ADA access requirements and Visit*Ability have "breached" the wheelchair access barrier. Future challenges to worldwide UD diffusion remain, but the train has left the station....

To keep up the momentum, the Universal Design Learnsites' mission for youth (who choose to accept) is to help diffuse the UD concept to the U. S. mainstream population and perhaps beyond. Teens are in an excellent position to emphasize the importance of UD to EVERYONE and work toward widespread demand for universal products and places where ALL people can live, work, and play.

We challenge you, your students, and youth groups to "Get With the UD Program"! Imagine us on the sidelines, cheering wildly at the success-theirs AND yours!!

Easter Eggs