Girl and a Boy each in their bedroom
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Ron Mace coined the term, Universal Design, over 20 years ago. The new Millennium is the right time for young social change agents to champion the global spread of this important concept. With you Guiding from the Side, they could even start a Universal Design Revolution! Viva UD!!

The UD Learnsite's lessons, learning activities, and examples offer great potential for young teens to help raise the levels of UD awareness, and in turn, increase UD adoption rates. As a result, youth can help improve the quality of life for millions of ordinary people of ALL ages and levels of ability ALL over the world.

The UD learnsite emphasizes the UNIVERSALITY of conditions that create needs for UD throughout the lifespan, plus the SIMILARITIES among people, regardless of culture. The site also seeks to instill USER EMPATHY in our future leaders so they can 'walk in the shoes' of persons for whom UD products and places are REQUIRED for safe, independent living.

To prepare for the challenge of developing a community-wide UD Awareness Campaign, your youthful charges first need to gain a working knowledge of the Universal Design Principles. They also need to 'buy into' the reasons for spreading the UD word, choose their target population, and know a smidgin about mass marketing.

You met (and began to conquer) the UD definition, its principles, and examples in sections GS-3-4; and perhaps took a peek at our youth version in the long UDLS Lesson 2. We briefly describe the other three "prerequisites" in this section. After you digest that rather theoretical background information, we have a surprise in store!


Until the Nineties, most Universal Design efforts were related to DISability issues. UD products--used primarily by people with disabilities--were few in number, fairly specialized, and often expensive. Any evident public awareness was limited to wheelchair users' needs for accessibility.

The people and organizations who tested the UD concept and raised early UD awareness focused on DIS-ability. Most UD Pioneers were involved with specific disabling conditions, rehabilitation techniques, architectural barriers' removal, or disability advocacy. Understandably, the Disability Community's small diffusion networks were intent on making environments accessible.

Minimal funding was available for going beyond disability to achieve public awareness through Universal Design education and outreach. As the 21st Century began, the apparent prevailing U. S. public perception was that UD is "just for people in wheelchairs," who John Q. Public assumed represent less than 5% of the population. Neither the "just for the disabled" limitation NOR the 5% population guesstimate is correct.

Adoption rates for Universal Design products are not generally available, but advocates suggest that they remain very low compared to increased wheelchair accommodations and selected high tech innovations (e.g., cell phones and computer games). Major obstacles to broad adoption of the UD concept have included the apparent lack of awareness among potential users AND suppliers, plus resistance from BOTH groups and a lingering lack of uniformity among applicable public regulations and standards.

According to Terrien (in NEA,1999), society is not ready to recognize UD benefits the way they do the benefits of a capitalist free-market society. He concluded that awareness of ALL UD benefits would shift the focus away from access features (e.g., ramps and grab bars) to standards that deal with attitude and performance.

Further social acceptance of UD is required to make it a mainstream tool to create, rather than just respond to public policy, legal requirements, and building codes. UD should be taught and prescribed as a vehicle for promoting social equality and justice, environmental sustainability, and human health and well-being for all (Weisman, in NEA, \1999).

Looking ahead, Vanderheiden suggested that large mass market industries are more interested and able to add features that increase usability for ALL than are smaller firms that specialize in serving a small faction of the population (in NEA, 1999). He predicted that future products would have NO obvious differences between features for people with disabilities vs. those for everyone else.


Obviously, many people with disabilities CANNOT live or work where architectural and transportation (and attitudinal) barriers exist. Since that market is already using UD products, our teens may need to target a different, larger UD market for their UD Awareness Campign. WHO ELSE could benefit from UD products and places?

In case they don't think of it themselves, you might ask the class or group whether at least one person from the three generations of older adults alive today (young-old, middle-old, and old-old) is living with the teens' family or in their own homes in town or a nearby community.

The proponents of advertising UD heavily to older people point to the huge numbers of people who are already elderly, PLUS the Baby Boomers. The OLDEST Boomers reach age 60 in 2006, and the YOUNGEST turned 40 in 2004. The parents or grandparents of many of your young charges are likely to be Boomers. We DO realize that many Boomers do NOT plan to "stay put"and are NOT resigned to the "inevitability" of spending some time-or dying-in a care facility (maybe they include YOU!). Bu-u-ut:

The vast majority of today's older Americans prefer to age in place in their longtime homes. But recent surveys reveal that the "Active Senior" housing submarket (young-old couples who DO move) is showing the greatest interest in UD, either to add the features to existing homes for safety and independence, or to purchase new universally-designed retirement dwellings. Aha!!

In the UD Learnsite, teens will see that in both Europe and Asia, UD is driven by a combination of growing elderly populations AND low birth rates. With a shrinking population, Japanese policymakers have already mandated Universal Design as a way to keep older adults at home and to reduce the expected needs for FUTURE caregivers. As a result, selected homes, workplaces, and public facilities must include features that are accessible to AND usable by people who use wheelchairs (Fletcher in Rustaccia, 1999).

Through the early efforts of the UD pioneers, awareness is higher among Americans who have vested interests in the concept, e.g., the Disability Community plus the frail elderly and their adult children. Building on that foundation, the UDLS challenges teens to volunteer as change agents to diffuse the concept further into today's mainstream population, perhaps starting in THEIR OWN (extended) families.

Teens are able to absorb new ideas readily AND communicate the benefits of new concepts knowledgeably and persuasively to people within their wide circles of influence. Their big target? Who else but the people whose lives are touched by design (Everyone)! Their methods? Nothing elaborate or complex, but ways that are comfortable for their age group AND their target audience(s).


By applying the basic tenets of Rogers' Theory of Diffusion of Innovations (1995), young teens can spread the Universal Design concept into society. Figure GS7-1 outlines the components of Rogers' theory, showing how the dissemination of a new idea or product occurs within a social system (as outlined by White). The figure organizes perceived attributes of innovations, communication channels and diffusion networks, time and (steps in) the innovation decision process, and levels of personal innovativeness within a social system into four oversimplified columns.

IF groups of teens were to study Rogers' model and explain the steps in their own words, they might easily envision a framework for their UD diffusion campaign. Youth could also identify and select potential targets or market segments to convert to Early Adopters of UD products and places. Selected UDLS lessons discuss dissemination methods that can be used whether OR NOT the teens study Rogers' model.

Figure GS7-1 is on the following page.

Surprise! We developed a lesson on Rogers' Theory to prepare teens to develop their community-wide UD Awareness Campaigns. But some of our reviewers suggested that was a bit too ambitious. Therefore no LESSON, but you may use the following background to help young teens produce a fun UD Awareness Campaign without spending too much time or $$.


To become awesome UD change agents, you need to know how innovations are introduced and diffused through a social system. Plus: how high an adoption rate must be to show that the diffusion process is complete (and the product widely accepted).

It takes a WIZARD to CREATE an innovation, but as much OR MORE GENIUS to disseminate it successfully. Fortunately, we can borrow from the research of Dr. Everett Rogers (1995). Rogers' Theory of Innovation/ Diffusion describes the steps, actors, and methods by which new products or ideas are spread to selected market groups, a nation, OR the whole world. (Do we hear that Coke jingle, 'I'd like to see a world of .... in perfect harmony...'?)


For your first attempt at disseminating the UD concept, we made a simplified model that highlights all the words or phrases involved in the diffusion process-or should we call it your Pretty Amazing Marketing Campaign? But you won't need ALL the terms this first time.

To apply Rogers' Theory, you'll use a few terms from each of the four columns of the model: Innovation, Communication Channels, Time, and a Social System. Phrases that define or describe each column title are in parentheses below the title.

NOTE: The four column titles are NOT necessarily steps to be taken in that order. Within each column, the terms listed below underlined headings might also be used in a different order as you develop an aware-ness campaign. (If that doesn't make sense now, it will after you study and begin to apply the model.)

You already know which INNOVATION (a cluster of ideas, a practice, or new technology) is to be spread (diffused). Gimme a U anda D! Moving down, let's define each of the PERCEIVED ATTRIBUTES that can affect the adoption rates for new innovations. All five can help to raise OR slow down the rate. For each attribute, it will be YOUR job to devise methods that will work to raise the UD adoption rate.

In terms of RELATIVE ADVANTAGE, UD products offer MORE benefits than other innovations that DON'T meet the UD Principles. Adoption of some UD products can be speeded up by competition from lower-priced models made offshore where production costs are cheaper than in the U. S. But for high-tech UD products, initially high, new-technology prices could slow the rate down.

If it falls victim to product confusion, UD could lose some relative advantage. Example: Potential users who confuse UD with assistive health technologies as "just for the handi...", are much less likely to adopt it. In other words: If products promoted as UD are ALSO ASSOCIATED WITH disability, dependence, or an institutional look, people may be slow to adopt them.

The COMPATIBILITY attribute refers to if, or how well, the innovation fits the needs or lifestyles of the majority of potential user-adopters. The better that fit, the faster and higher the adoption rate.

UD product COMPLEXITY also can affect its rate of adoption. Complicated UD products or features would slow the rate down, while simple items tend to be adopted quickly--especially if they are small and inexpensive.

OBSERVABILITY means that potential consumers need to be able to see the new product or concept and how it works. UD product demonstrations, free samples, or photo advertising all can create more visibility for a new, never-seen-nor-heard-of innovation.

Finally, TRIALABILITY is defined as whether parts or the whole UD product may be "test-driven." With innovative new UD products, consumer trials that let people "try before they buy" may be necessary to convince them. The more complex and expensive the new product, the more important trialability becomes in helping to raise its adoption rate.

In the second column, COMMUNICATION CHANNELS are the means through which you'll arrange for an information exchange that lets consumers know that "UD RULES!" We'll cover this one by asking the looooong "educational question" below. (Find the underlined question mark four paragraphs down, then back up and start reading and thinking).

Of the four channels that can make up the diffusion network, WILL USING:
1) MASS MEDIA (e.g., TV, radio, the Net, billboard advertising) promote the UD concept as effectively per unit of cost (in dollars or hours) AS:

2) INTERPERSONAL EXCHANGES between selected groups of people talking to their peers (e.g., get 10 friends to tell 10 more friends about X, or work with organizations whose members are most interested in the product), AS:

3) expert CHANGE AGENTS who promote the concept where it makes the most difference after they identify the target market segment most likely to respond favorably--for whatever reason (e.g., need, usability, status), OR

4) selecting the best OPINION LEADERS (e.g., celeb spokespersons, so-called experts, teen model citizens) to support UD publicly??

Now to answer that looooong question in terms of your UD Awareness Campaign. You probably won't have much cash, if any. But depending on the timing of the campaign, your class or youth group may be able to harness hundreds of hours of energetic youth community service volunteer time!

The number and types of channels you use may differ from one diffusion campaign to another. You may decide to use THE channel that "gets the biggest bang for the buck." Or your plan might list all four in priority order, based on their cost, the type of innovation, and the target market.

Ah, the TIME element! Time-relevant questions are: 1) How long will it take large numbers of people to complete their decision process to adopt the UD concept or buy a UD product;
2) How many folks will reject it? and 3) How many adopters will use it indefinitely vs. discontinue its use after an initial try?

The campaign goal we've assigned you is to EDUCATE as many people as possible about the UD concept and example products in a short time. NOT having to get them all the way to adoption (or rejection) will reduce your amount of work and shorten the project nicely.

Your class or group probably won't have time or resources to go beyond sharing your UD knowledge with your hometown General Public. Your campaign will end at the knowledge step in the consumer innovation-decision process. But we'll explain the remaining steps briefly below (anyway).

In addition to providing knowledge, a total marketing campaign maps out strategies to persuade and help consumers decide to "buy" (adopt) the concept or product. The plan also outlines ways to "close" the sale and assure that adopters implement (use) the product properly. (Now, why would their 'doing it right' be necessary or important?).

Last, you'd include positive ways to help users CONFIRM that they made the RIGHT decision (we know that if we get them to start feeling loyal to a product or concept, they're less likely to discontinue its use after we're done....).

While the SOCIAL SYSTEM is the LAST column on the model, choosing the target group within a society usually comes right after determining which innovation to diffuse. As we noted earlier, the best choices are within your wide circles of influence: Families, friends, and other students or youth groups in your home town social system.

The time frame of your UD unit may limit how much can be accomplished unless the awareness campaign is Summerized. Finally, targeting a specific LEVEL OF INNOVATIVENESS (e.g., Early Adopters vs. Laggards) may not be necessary with a concept as new as UD. As the year 2005 closed, the majority of American society apparently hadn't even reached the Early Adopter level.

Knowing the basics of the Innovation/Diffusion Process gives you a head start on planning your UD Awareness Campaign. Added bonus: You already know some of what those College Dude marketing majors study so they can develop their expensive, but smokin' marketing plans!

Finally, we do NOT suggest that teens, schools, or after-school programs spend Madison Avenue-style money on this project-nowhere near those Big Bucks! But from lots of hand-planted little seeds, who knows how HUGE your efforts may make UD?

Flip Flops among belts
Credit: American Eagle