Universal Design Principle Advances Equity For All

By Nancy Tannler

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were first developed in 1997 by the late Ronald Mace of North Carolina State University, and a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers. 

Universal Design (UD) is a guide for buildings, products and communications. 

The intention was to create inclusive design solutions that promoted accessibility and usability by allowing people with all levels of ability to live independently. 

People with disabilities have battled for centuries against the stigmatization of being disabled. They were marginalized by society like many oppressed minorities, leaving these people in a severe state of impoverishment for centuries.

This marginalization continued until after World War I when wounded veterans returning from Europe expected the US government to help them recover their self-reliance and self-sufficiency in return for their service to the nation. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first president with a disability, was a great advocate for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities, but even then the disabled operated under the notion that a disability was an abnormal, shameful condition to be medically cured or fixed.

World War II vets placed increasing pressure on the government to provide them with rehabilitation and vocational training. Despite these advancements, people with disabilities still did not have access to public transportation telephones, bathrooms and stores. 

Office buildings and worksites with stairs offered no entry for these people, so many talented and eligible people were locked out of opportunities for meaningful work.

It wasn’t until 1973 when the Rehabilitation Act was passed that protected the civil rights of people with disabilities by law. 

The Rehabilitation Act provided equal opportunity for employment within the federal government and in federally-funded programs, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of either physical or mental disability.

The Rehabilitation Act Section 504 also established the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, mandating equal access to public services (such as public housing and public transportation services) to people with disabilities and the allocation of money for vocational training.

Today our society is moving towards more user-centered designs that identify and address the needs, abilities and limitations of the user without making an obvious statement. 

As people are living longer, the idea to age-in-place has become more desirable. Architects are incorporating Universal Design concepts into their new builds and remodels, making homes adaptable for a lifetime.

Green Hammer employed Universal Design Principles when they designed Ankeny Row, 2501 SE Ankeny St. The idea was to build a home that uses less energy and is available to everyone.

Erica Dunn, Green Hammer Director of Design, said, “Ankeny Row was designed so people could age-in-place with ease of use and mobility a top priority.” 

This included no steps to the front door, a bedroom on the ground floor, showers without a curb, extra space in the kitchen for navigating a wheelchair and selecting door hardware with levers instead of knobs. This was back in 2015.

Green Hammer realized this type of building just makes sense so they continued to implement these principles even on projects not specific to aging-in-place. They are currently finishing six Zero Energy Townhomes at Rose Villa and recently finished a Zero Energy home in the Richmond neighborhood.

Bill Bailey, managing partner of Waterleaf, designed the Seven Corners building at SE 12th and SE Division St. Their company began working with Oregon State University in 2010, whose policy is to incorporate Universal Design into all their Capital Improvement and Maintenance projects.

Waterleaf incorporates UD in as much of their work as possible. Their most recent undertaking is the Fuller Station Housing project, located off of Johnson Creek Blvd. in Happy Valley. 

“This philosophy to incorporate accessibility as universal right, rather than simply an accommodation,” Bailey said, “has inspired our work and helped to focus our design for both new buildings, as well as renovations.”

Universal Design does not only apply to buildings, but massive strides are being made in communications as well. 

Portland State University (PSU) Universal Design Lab (uLab) director Samuel Sennott developed the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app Proloquo2Go. It serves people with disabilities and specifically, those with complex communication needs.

Sennett said PSU’s uLab follows the procedures of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) developed by CAST (cast.org), an organization who coined the term. 

Over the past 30 years Sennett said the assistive technology and special education fields have embraced the principles and practices of UDL, making it easier for people with impaired hearing or language barriers to interact with the rest of society.

The Universal Design Principle is becoming a new standard for design in all areas of life. The resulting products, services or environments are something that can be used by everyone regardless of age, size, ability or disability. It removes one more social barrier in our quest to make this an equitable world.

Find out more about the 7 Principles of Universal Design at bit.ly/7PrinciplesUD.

Ankeny Row photo by Jon Jensen, Green Hammer

Universal Design Principle Advances Equity For All

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