Doing Universal Design
Universal design is not, according to the introduction on the CD-ROM, a euphemism for accessibility and does not carry the negative connotation of "barrier-free design." It differs from the prescriptive Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, which give many individuals access to spaces, but may not support their active and full participation.
ADA standards also do not address the subtleties of sensory and cognitive differences or address the changes experienced by the human body over time. According to the CD-ROM authors: "designers may use the minimums of codes and standards as a benchmark, and then must go beyond them to achieve universal design."
The Seven Principles of Universal Design
The CD-ROM is organized by professional discipline and by seven design principles:
1. Equitable use. The design is not only useable to people with diverse abilities but is applied by all in the same way to avoid stigmatizing anyone. For example, adaptable seating in an assembly area is integrated and dispersed.
2. Flexibility in use provides a choice of method of use to accommodate individual differences in a user's accuracy and pace. An example is an automated teller machine (ATM) with visual, tactile, and audible feedback, a tapered card opening, and a palm rest.
3. Simple and intuitive use, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level, with effective prompting and feedback. Examples include moving sidewalks or escalators in public spaces.
4. Perceptible Information, so that a design communicates necessary information, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. An example might be tactile, visual, and audible cues and instructions on a thermostat.
5. Tolerance for error, thus minimizing the consequences of unintended actions, such as the familiar "undo" feature in computer software.
6. Low physical effort, so the design can be used efficiently with a minimum of fatigue, as with loop handles on doors and faucets.
7. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility. For example: clear floor space around appliances, mailboxes, and other building elements.
The multimedia environment of the Exemplars is itself designed to be maximally usable. The authors decided to publish in the Web language HTML and have included copies of Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, and MacLynx browser software on the CD-ROM.
They had discovered that many programs which promised "ease of use" were generally incompatible with current assistive technologies such as screen magnifiers, audio screen readers, and Braille displays.
The large, high-contrast text is readable for those with low vision and can be changed by adjusting the browser preferences. Every image has a textual description in addition to the caption.
The CD-ROM is organized as a matrix that displays which principles apply in which projects. From the matrix, the user can link to a project or to the further explanation of a design principle. Here are a few of the featured projects:
A Japanese Garden
The Sensory Garden, designed by Yoshisuke Miyake for Osaka Japan's Oizumi Ryokuchi Park, invites exploration through the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch.
The garden features a wayfinding system that takes visitors into seating areas surrounded by raised plant beds and water. Visitors with diverse abilities can easily smell the flowers and touch the sculptures.
The park has a combination of flat, hard-surface walks and retaining walls, surrounding areas of foliage and flowers of vividly contrasting colors. Braille labels identifying the plants are placed on the backside of handrails. A second, lower handrail is available for visitors of shorter stature.
A Mountain Cabin
This retreat was made by recycling an abandoned two-story, 18-foot- (5.5-meter-) square cabin. The original structure was disassembled and moved to its present location. Both stories were placed side by side at grade level to create the 650-square-foot (60-square-meter) space.
Ron Mace planned the layout to give the appearance of spaciousness and to make the cabin comfortable for someone using a mobility device while maintaining the "cozy" feel of a traditional mountain cabin. Furniture is minimized to make maneuvering in a wheelchair easier and to reduce tripping hazards for people with low vision.
Other features include wide doorways with level thresholds and lever hardware; more daylight than in traditional mountain cabins, useful for people with reduced vision; and casement windows set low, equipped with easy-to-turn crank handles and low-mounted locks.
An Exemplary Residential Interior
In the large "Art House" in Shelby Township, Michigan, designed by Christopher Grobbel, of Action Wood Technologies, doorways and hallways are wide, living spaces are open, and all areas are easy to reach and filled with light.
The owner/occupant uses a wheelchair, and he was determined that his new house would fit both him and people with different abilities. All floor surfaces are either low, tightly woven, dense carpet or slip-resistant tile and are easy to roll or walk across.
The kitchen has work surfaces at a variety of heights to accommodate standing, seated, and shorter users. The curbless, roll-in shower works for users who are standing or seated in a waterproof shower wheelchair, a portable plastic bench, or the wall-hung seat.
A Multisensory Museum Exhibit
The Dorcas Project was designed by Peter Howell, Julia Ionides, EOS Electronics AV, and Angus Modelmakers, to enhance the experience of museum visitors. It supplements the visual experience with auditory commentary, tactile maps, and touchable models to provide information about a room or an exhibit.
These features are useful for all visitors, but especially people with low or no vision. Integral with the map is the audio component that allows a visitor to locate, select, and depress buttons that activate voice descriptions of specific areas of the building or exhibit.
The system can also be used as a directory for any building: the combination print and tactile map can provides critical information about room locations, routes of travel, and emergency exits.
These are just a few of the exemplary projects described on the CD-ROM. Besides additional architectural and environmental design projects, there are examples of consumer products such as chairs and window controls.
B.J. Novitski is managing editor for ArchitectureWeek and author of Rendering Real and Imagined Buildings.
The Exemplars project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, NEC Foundation of America, and Trace R&D Center. Leslie Young, Design Director, Center for Universal Design, Project Director. Authors of the Principles of Universal Design include Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, and Gregg Vanderheiden, developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Universal Design Exemplars, by the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, © 2000. Multimedia CD-ROM, $35 plus shipping. To order call USA 919-515-3082 or 800-647-6777.