Universal design for people with disabilities

Kirina Dowrich -
Kirina Dowrich -

Kirina Dowrich

Accessibility is one way in which inclusion can be practised.

In Trinidad and Tobago, transforming our existing buildings and creating new interior and exterior spaces that facilitate people with disabilities often seems to be an afterthought and not on the list of priorities. In the 2011 TT Population and Housing Census it was reported that there are approximately 52,244 people in our country living with a disability. That is a minimum of 2.7 per cent of the total population of 1.39 million. These figures, which over the past nine years may be even greater, shows that there is a need to provide accessibility for a growing number of people who are marginalised due to lack of access. Providing truly inclusive design for all is something we do not consider in its entirety. The reality is that holistic planning has only recently been pushed to the forefront after years of advocacy and lobbying by special interest groups, NGO’s and self-advocates globally.

According to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which TT ratified in 2015, each country should strive “to promote, protect and enable the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” This responsibility does not fall on the government alone. Public and private sector also have a part to play in ensuring that persons with disabilities experience a truly inclusive environment wherever they go. One way to overcome this inaccessibility is to embrace the concept of universal design. The Disability Act 2005 defines universal design as “the design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used to the greatest possible extent, in the most independent and natural manner possible, in the widest possible range of situations and without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions. It must also be able to give access to persons of any age or size, having any physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability.”

Universal design is not a new concept it was developed in the mid-1980s to help realise the goal of creating a truly inclusive society. According to the late architect who coined the term, Ronald L Mace, 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.” Truth be told, when one really delves into the concept of universal design, you would soon realise the full scope of inclusion that you need to make in order to ultimately provide the standard of accessibility that benefits practically any one who would enter and operate in an interior space. A few architectural elements that measure up to the definition of universal design are lever handles for opening doors, as opposed to twisting knobs, smooth entranceways on ground level that do not include stairways and wide doorways and hallways.

With universal design, people who utilise any form of design or environment would stand to gain from its exposure, whether they be, “a person who has no significant problems but who would appreciate a well-designed accessible and usable product, service or environment… a person who is unable to use the product at all,” or anyone lying in between that spectrum. This is due to the fact that, according to the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD), “the human-centred approach to design that universal design supports is user-friendly and convenient, but is also respectful of user dignity, rights and privacy.”

On a societal level, universal design can enact greater equality as well as make life more convenient and safer for everyone in various types of environments. To achieve this, systems and built infrastructure must have users at the centre of the design process so that they can accommodate all people from different walks of life in society, be it abilities, ages and/or sizes. This approach can be applied to a key area, technology, as it has grown to be truly predominant in our physical spaces and products over time... Accessibility and inclusion to a host of resources and amenities (social, fiscal, and government) can only be facilitated through universal design that creates true equality. 

This approach can be applied to a key area, technology, as it has grown to be truly predominant in our physical spaces and products over time so that, according to the CEUD, “the lines of what is specifically product, Information Communication Technology (ICT) or building design have become blurred.” Accessibility and inclusion to a host of resources and amenities (social, fiscal, and government) can only be facilitated through universal design that creates true equality. 

In business, universal design brings several advantages. Larger market reach via the nature of any design being universally accessible and usable to a greater cross section of people. This creates more potential customers for businesses. Additionally, there can be higher customer satisfaction with the design, environment or product and can lead to recommendations and retention of customers. Lastly, businesses stand to benefit from having a good public image in society and a high rate of corporate social responsibility due to their decision to include universal design in their building(s), resources or other designs.

Our National Policy on Persons with Disabilities elaborates on several policy directives that together provide a thorough framework for bringing about social inclusion among other improvements to the lives of all persons with disabilities. Accessibility is one of the many areas addressed in the policy that was made to ultimately impact every aspect of the lives of persons with disabilities. Assistive technology and devices are one way they can be connected to resources, amenities and services they need for independent life. 

Should there be legislation in the future to concretise the safeguarding of inclusion for all in physical spaces, universal design would be the one of many useful approaches to actualising accessibility by all in society, notably with people with disabilities. Universal design is in other words about helping to achieve an inclusive society where everyone has equal opportunities to participate, whether they are young, old, disabled or able-bodied.

Submitted for the Down Syndrome Family Network by Lisa Ghany on behalf of Kirina Dowrich. Dowrich is a a graduate and former student of disability studies at UWI, St Augustine, who is interested in interior design. She is also a budding creative, an advocate for universal design and the rights of persons with disabilities.


"Universal design for people with disabilities"

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