What is Universal Design?

As the two parallel trends of globalization, technology innovation and human rights advocacy, draw closer together the push-pull effect on the digital divide is creating unintentional barriers. With corporate ambitions and service provider focus on delivery on one side of the divide, and marginalized citizens and policy makers on the other side. Societal inclusion is not just about enabling technologies and accessible services, but rather should be more about effective design around real life experiences. That is, education, skills development, and social behaviour must be an inclusive interactive engagement, so as to understand and remove real barriers to close the digital divide. A new study from the Angus Reid Institute finds that seven-in-ten Canadians say universal accessibility should be the goal for newly constructed buildings. Accessibility: A source of future anxiety and a significant consideration for Canadian consumers today

The accessibility gap between Leadership understanding of accessibility and the Management implementation of accessibility is the invisible barrier preventing blind Canadians from actively participating in society. Life experiences, from education to employment to leisure, require access to information that allow people to make decisions in building confidence and independence. Despite goodwill and best intentions, Leaders often make decisions based on perceptions of biases and misleading information, and Management far too often do not have the resources or skills to implement Leadership expectations. As a result Canadians living with vision loss are marginalized in society due to an ever widening digital divide.

The ability to use new emerging technologies is currently at the heart of social inclusion, with those excluded being left out of many work, entertainment, communication, healthcare and social benefits. Access to information and communication systems is critical to the quality of life in our information technology driven society. To help create a barrier free society, governments around the world, are implementing accessibility standards based on four core principles; dignity, independence, integration, and equal opportunity. However, how are these core principles implemented into the Universal Design process?

Design is all around us, but for the most part it reflects the perception of the designer, and if the product or service fails your need then the design concepts are flawed. Design is the bridge that spans the digital divide to overcomes barriers between the delivery of information and the understanding knowledge that impacts life decisions. Design flaws are the barriers that keep people from benefiting from products and services. The accessibility core principles must be understood by all designers, if we are going to achieve universal inclusion within Canadian society. Universal Inclusive Design is based on Transparent Interfaces, Ubiquitous Access, and Adaptive levels of Engagement. Let us consider the barriers that must be removed, so as to close the digital divide.

Universal Design

  1. Dignity: A sense of pride in oneself and self-respect

    (Human Dignity Definition)
    The Digital Divide: From information to knowledge (Knowledge is power)
    The Barriers: Message delivery and bias attitudes (Access, Understanding, Knowledge)
    Designing for Dignity: Designing a functional room, building, or smart city, requires features that allow humans to perceive their environment and make decisions. Entering a dark room, a sighted person dependent upon visual cues, will be disoriented, but if handed a flashlight, will be able to probe the environment to build a virtual model of the room in their mind. If the room is designed with audible and tactile features a blind person using assistive tools will be able to probe the environment to build a virtual model of the space within their mind. Likewise, humans probe the internet communication services to find and access information, to assimilate and understand content, to gain knowledge and make smart decisions. The level of pride and self-respect in achieving this goal will depend upon the model of Universal Design. The Dignity challenge is to bridge the accessibility gap, through multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement, that will create the best possible end-user experience. What design barriers impact your ability to access, understand, and act upon information?

  2. Independence: Free from the influence or control of another and Self-governing

    (Independent dictionary definition)
    The Digital Divide: From accessibility to usability (Usability is enabling)
    The Barriers: Design standards and government regulations (perceptions, myths, experiences)
    Designing for independence: Assuming you have access to the information and understand the options, can you independently act upon your decision, or are you dependent upon human assistance? A sighted person crossing the street will first look at the stop light, while a blind person may listen for traffic movement, search for an audible signal button or ask for assistance, but in both cases the individual is capable of walking across the street on their own power. An elevator with touch sensitive buttons and no tactile floor indicators, will be a challenge for a blind person to select the desired option. Likewise, internet communication services (online shopping, application forms, virtual learning, touch screen kiosk, and software tools) must be designed for independent use. What activities prevent you from taking independent actions, due to design flaw barriers? Having the information, but not able to act upon the decision, creates dependencies.

  3. Integration: Assimilation within Social, economic and identity interpenetration

    (Social integration definition)
    The Digital Divide: From passive to active (Active is inclusive)
    The Barriers: Inclusive dialogs and active participation (Innovation, Availability, Affordability)
    Designing for Integration: Assuming you have access to the information and able to act independently upon your options, are you an active participant or a passive observer? Government open and transparent processes encourage citizens to participate in online forums and consultation sessions, but for the most part marginalized groups are not included in the mainstream dialog. Service organizations often function as a facilitator for disabled people to accommodate government and business communication processes, as the voice of their constituents. Should innovative emerging technologies despite their imperfections be made available to organizations to support the digital communication needs of blind persons, as part of infrastructure upgrades. We have smart devices and artificial intelligent services that could be integrated into the design of buildings and transit, but are designers aware of the digital communication needs of blind persons? Is accommodating the same as integrating? Are you prevented from actively participating in activities due to the availability and affordability of technology?

  4. Equality: Social justice and Equal opportunities; achieve wealth, prestige, power

    (Social equality definition)
    The Digital Divide: From chaos to stability (Stability is Satisfaction)
    The Barriers: Collaborative processes and top down innovation (Attitude, Policies, Behavior)
    Designing for equality: The digital revolution has imposed unprecedented pressures upon organizations, and has disrupted the traditional management model. The struggle for competitive advantage has forced organizations to respond to the rapid changes in technology innovation and human rights demands. This has had a huge impact on the health of Canadian workers, and has resulted in systemic barriers in the job market for blind persons. Bridging the divide between Leadership understanding of accessibility and management implementation of accessibility is often the battle ground of Employment policies and real life experiences. Do diversity inclusion and accommodation programs equalize the workplace for blind employees? Is separate but equal acceptable? Universal design must consider, not just products and services, but also management and human resource processes. Should accessibility barriers be the causality for job dismissal?


Universal design refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities and people with disabilities.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design:

  1. Equitable Use.
  2. Flexibility in Use.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use.
  4. Perceptible Information.
  5. Tolerance for Error.
  6. Low Physical Effort.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use.

The Universal Design Principles are meant to guide the design process and educate designers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments. To remain relevant in the digital age, AEBC must develop Leadership that understand the global trends, and Advocates that understand real life experiences, so as to engage the external world in a meaningful and effective dialog. What is the AEBC vision, and what are the challenges preventing AEBC from achieving that vision? What are your skills and talents that can support AEBC in achieving the vision? What are the barriers that keep us from closing the digital divide, and what are the Leadership and Advocacy resources needed to make AEBC relevant in the digital age?