Universal Design: A Strategy for Accessibility

Bjarki Hallgrimsson, Associate Professor, School of Industrial Design, Carleton University, Ottawa, CanadaBjarki Hallgrimsson, Associate Professor, School of Industrial Design, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Bjarki Hallgrimsson’s work in the area of accessibility and universal design includes research and commercial development of several mobility products for People With Disabilities (PWD) including the award winning and patented Nexus Rollator series of products for Humancare. Since 2011 he and his students have collaborated with CanUgan Disability Support, an NGO with a focus on providing products for PWD in Kasese in western Uganda through a design “with” rather than a design “for” approach. This work has been sponsored by The International Research Development Corporation and also included a student at Makerere University. The outcome has yielded innovative new forms of products that both enhance mobility, while also looking at the aspect of income generation both for local manufacturers as well as the recipients. He is also the author of “Prototyping and Modelmaking for Product Design” by Laurence King Publishing. This design method is central to the work and research including the work done in Uganda. 

“Full and effective participation and inclusion in society”, is a guiding principle of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This convention has to date been ratified by 87% of the UN member states and thus stands as “the most swiftly ratified international treaty” in history (United Nations, 2006). 

In its ten-year report, the UN notes that “moving forward, more concrete actions and measures shall and can be taken to further remove barriers, create accessible and enabling environments and conditions, and secure equal opportunities for participation by all persons with disabilities”. In 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, and the CRPD is deeply rooted within this ambitious effort (United Nations, 2016). Goal 4: Quality Education, as an example, addresses equitable education and specifically states that by 2030 equal access shall be available for persons with disabilities. Similarly Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, specifically identifies that persons with disabilities are to be part of achieving the goal’s targets.

The World Health Organization (WHO) approximates that 15% of the world’s population, corresponding to about one billion people worldwide (WHO, 2012), is living with some physical, cognitive or emotional form of disability. This percentage is actually growing across the globe, associated in particular with an ageing population in the west and conflict and disease affecting younger populations around the world. According to the WHO, disability is “not just a health problem, it is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives”. When persons with disabilities (PWD) are excluded from social policies that affect the design of the environment and products of daily life, their access to education, transportation, employment, and other daily activities that most of us take for granted, such as public sanitation, is vastly curtailed. This adds to the existing negative stigma of PWD being incapable and dependent on others for their existence, and fuels negative superstitions.

The UN CRPD was preceded and complemented by important legislations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) in the most populous province in Canada. These pieces of legislation aim to ensure that no persons are excluded from normal and daily activities of life and were largely the outcome of years of advocacy on the part of PWD. The AODA is quite remarkable, as it requires every organisation in the province that employs more than one person to comply with requirements and standards that ensure accessibility. The AODA, for example, works by developing a set of standards through a Standards Development Committee (SDC), composed of PWD, affected organisations, and government representatives. A study headed by Andria Spindel, President and CEO of March of Dimes of Ontario in Canada showed, however, that the road to a barrier-free Ontario has not been without difficulty in terms of political obstacles and disagreements between the parties when it came to approving standards. Whereas the urgency experienced by many of the advocates is real, resistance from the affected organisations, who view accessibility as a costly exercise that only benefits a few, creates delays and roadblocks that require governmental intervention. (Spindel, Kamenetsky, Waxman, & Danish)

The growing pains experienced in North America will, however, ultimately benefit a growing segment of the population. Change is inevitable and a strategy that supports innovation in the area of accessibility will not only improve the lives of PWD, but also will reap benefits of increased opportunities both for PWD and people working in industries affected. It is however important to understand that legislation through standards often addresses the problem after it has arisen and often limits the understanding and scope of what is meant by disability. This article will therefore also look at the problem through a different lens to show that we might enable more action and movement through attitudes that fundamentally alter the process, namely universal design. 


Architect and educator Ron Mace was the founder of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and early promoter of the term, universal design, to describe “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (The Center for Universal Design, 2008). What makes this approach different from developing legislative standards for accessibility is that the focus is towards a proactive attitudinal approach for design professionals and other stakeholders – one that regards end users as comprising a range of abilities rather than focuses on disabled individuals as people that need to be accommodated individually. The term “universal” is sometimes described as too broad and encompassing and hence unattainable, but by always thinking about people’s varied abilities in terms of designing things like houses, websites, buildings, and public transportation, the emphasis changes from adaptation and accommodation towards a more inclusive focus. This ultimately reduces the need for retrofitting the likes of buildings and vehicles or having alternate versions of websites etc. In order to achieve this goal it also requires a rethinking about what accessibility actually means. If, for example, the idea of accessibility is too narrowly focused on accommodating a few users with alternative solutions, the organisation responsible for the implementation becomes resistant. On the other hand, if we view the design of products, services and environments as taking into consideration the widest prospect of the population (universal), then we make these more flexible, adaptable and usable. This also makes enormous economic sense since people with disabilities present a growing market segment in diverse sectors including tourism and retail. Universally designed products and services are not niche, they simply appeal to a broader group of people. As such, universal design principles implemented across numerous market segments in the US and Ontario represent a $2 trillion business opportunity for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and innovators (Salah, 2014).

Universal design has increasingly been taking a centre stage in terms of public policy and strategy. In Norway as an example, the government developed an “Action Plan for Universal Design and Increased Accessibility” that it expects to be fully implemented by the year 2025. This action plan includes several legal instruments in the form of legislation, but importantly also non-legal instruments such as “public procurement regulations” in order to ensure the universal design of procurements and that universal design is safeguarded in all parts of public administration. Richard Duncan at NCSU notes that in Norway the notion of universal design is replacing the concepts of accessibility and usability in most areas of government and society. In addition he notes, “Universal design is now being used in new areas where accessibility issues have formerly not been observed” (Duncan, 2007). This can reasonably be assumed to be the result of proactive design decisions and policies that make products, environment and services more inclusive and, in the long run, more effective, easier to implement and less costly than trying to fix existing solutions. The UN Division for Social Policy and Development Disability identifies that the “SDGs explicitly include people with disabilities 11 times” and furthermore states that “all goals are universal”. It is therefore clear that universal design stands to become a more common and integrated approach to many of the problems faced by PWD in terms of addressing the 17 SDGs. (United Nations, 2017)


Accessibility is not only a fundamental human right, but is increasingly being identified as an opportunity for societal progress in terms of technological innovation. As such, it also presents business opportunities for the future, which in turn places additional emphasis on education. By training architects, engineers and industrial designers to incorporate important universal design principles into their work as a matter of norm, the long-term effects and expectations of PWD will also be addressed without the need for as much oversight and advocacy as in the current approach. This is exactly what the new Research and Education in Accessibility Design and Innovation (READi) programme, headed by Dr Adrian Chan at Carleton University, aims to do. The programme, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in Canada, will train undergraduate and graduate students to take advantage of the growing number of opportunities that are arising in diverse areas of health, information management and transportation to name a few. The focus thus extends beyond understanding special needs and standards, so as to proactively demonstrate leadership through innovation. The programme includes an Action Team Project (ATP) where students will work on real-life projects in collaboration with PWD and industry collaborators to address opportunities. This highlights how government policy can support a long-term vision, in terms of research and training, in addition to policing legislative standards.

Policies that place emphasis on innovation in accessibility, for example through universal design, can have a broad and realistic scope. Countries that lack the historical advocacy and progress made through independent legislation may more easily benefit through policy that promotes and educates people about the potential opportunities that exist in a more accessible world. Even in the less developed areas of the world, also referred to as the “majority world” by Indian universal design advocate Signapalli Balaram, collaboration between government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and educational institutions can help alleviate poverty, stigma and accessibility. 

An example of a how this approach can be implemented in the majority world is the Design Innovation for Disability in Kasese Project (DIDK), an ongoing collaboration between Carleton University, NGOs and organisations for PWD in Uganda. This country has a high prevalence of diseases, accidents and historical conflicts that in turn are responsible for many physical disabilities. Studies also show that the poorest of the poor are usually persons with disabilities (Ahmed, et al., 2007). The project was headed by Professor Bjarki Hallgrimsson at the School of Industrial Design at Carleton University and focused on universal design for people in Kasese, a rural community in Western Uganda. Students travelled to Uganda as part of their final year capstone project course where they met students from that country and partook in designing and working with members of the local community of PWD as well local manufacturers in Kasese. 

Baluku Peter, coordinator of the Kasese Union of People with Disability (KADUPEDI), is a strong advocate for people with disabilities in his district and often references the sign in front of his office in downtown Kasese proclaiming, “Disability is not Inability”. He is also living with disability and has been instrumental in forging a relationship with CanUgan Disability Support, the Canadian NGO that has provided numerous devices for people with disabilities including hand-operated tricycles manufactured locally in Kasese under contract by CanUgan. These tricycles and many more innovative devices, were co-developed through the DIDK project. The initial motivation was to design a better hand-operated tricycle to be built locally in Kasese by local craftsmen operating with little formal training or support. The locally-built tricycles are in much demand as they can be produced at an affordable cost, are suitable to the rough roads and long distances, and can be maintained with local skills and simple bicycle parts. Imported and donated wheelchairs, in contrast, are not strong enough or suitable for travelling long distances. They also are difficult and impossible to maintain due to the lack of spare parts and inability to weld and repair aluminium frames. The team, including members from Kadupedi, recognised that it would be valuable to improve the production capacity and quality of the tricycles by addressing a number of specific issues in regards to manufacturing, ergonomics and performance characteristics. At the same time, it was clear that the problem was not only technical. According to Baluku Peter, PWD face the cultural stigma of being “non-providers”. This means that they are often seen as a burden in the extended family concept rather than as net contributors. That is, unless they can contribute even something small to their family and/or income, in which case the stigma can be lifted to a certain degree. The effort therefore grew quite quickly to also look at some of the cultural and social realities faced by people with disabilities in Kasese to see how design might improve their lives in terms of empowering them economically. Other questions started to emerge; would these projects and innovative solutions empower local craftsmen to become more innovative themselves? Could the idea of design with end users, especially economic outliers with a disability, be of interest to local universities in Uganda? Would this project be sustainable?

To date the DIDK project has brought eleven students to Kasese to partake in this universal design exercise. Eight were undergraduate students from Carleton’s School of Industrial Design and one was an engineering student from Makerere University. Two students were master students in the Industrial Design program at Carleton. All the students participated in meeting local end users, working with them to better understand their particular needs and circumstances. This aspect was important and invokes the methods of anthropologists who immerse themselves in other people’s culture to gain a better understanding through ethnography. The undergraduate students focused on designing new solutions that could be built by the local craftsmen and accordingly had to work hand-in-hand with them at their shops. This was tough work and made the students appreciate the skill and resourcefulness of local craftsmen in Kasese. It also levelled the playing field to some degree in terms of creating mutual respect and building trust. The master students followed the progress of the projects and did deeper research to understand the efficacy of the new solutions by engaging in ethnographic research with the end users. Some of the noteworthy projects include a tricycle fitted with a solar panel and charging station for mobile telephones.

Figure 1: Two-in-One Tricycle Wheelchair (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Vandermeer)
Figure 1: Two-in-One Tricycle Wheelchair (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Vandermeer)

This effectively allows the end user to not only have a form of transportation, but also to complement their family income by providing a service business. Then-student Andrew Theobald envisioned this idea after noting that local entrepreneurs were offering such a business without a mobile solution. In other words, this new solution actually became better because it was mobile. Similarly then student Carmen Liu developed an independent attachment that would allow people to grind maize using the power of the hand cranked front wheel of the tricycle. In this sense these become universal design solutions that benefit everyone. Another product is the two-in-one tricycle or “Mbili-Kwa-Moja” that allows kids with disabilities to go to school with a tricycle that converts to a wheelchair upon reaching their destination. This was a project that was brought to fruition by then-student Jennifer Vandermeer. She realised the need after visiting a local elementary school that had several students with disabilities in attendance. Both these projects are the result of deeper research and follow-up that looked at the combinatory effects of the technology and the social value achieved. (Hallgrimsson, Parekh, & Mellway, 2014). The two-in-one tricycle/wheelchair has just received additional funding from the Promobilia Foundation in Sweden so that it can be further improved and disseminated as an open-source project utilising local manufacturers and know-how, and a broader innovation base. These projects also illuminate an approach that simultaneously addresses many different SDGs without being the result of specific legislative standards, but instead by employs a more holistic mind-set and approach that is sustainable and local.

Figure 2: Solar Charging Tricycle (Photos courtesy of Andrew Theobald)
Figure 2: Solar Charging Tricycle (Photos courtesy of Andrew Theobald)

Design-oriented interdisciplinary approach allowed the team to achieve innovative solutions and a more sustainable approach by working more directly with end users and learning from trying new ideas. This meant working directly with the people who were affected, including the advocacy group for people with disabilities, end user recipients themselves, local political representatives, NGOs and academics. As much as possible, people were brought together, evaluated new ideas, and gave feedback on these new possibilities, rather than simply taking turns stating their opinions or lamenting about their needs. Prototypes and iterative approaches that enabled PWD to partake in the process allowed the team to design with rather than for these people. It thus gave them voice and allowed designers to gain deeper insights about the genuine needs including gender-specific concerns such as women having to travel with infants.

Figure 3. Maize grinder adapted to tricycle hand pedal (Photos courtesy of Carmen Liu)
Figure 3. Maize grinder adapted to tricycle hand pedal (Photos courtesy of Carmen Liu)


In accordance with implementing the 17 UN SDGs, governments can and should stress policies that support universal design as an innovation strategy that looks towards the future and makes life accessible to a growing segment of the population. The SDGs make reference to persons with disabilities 11 times and are at the core of creating an inclusive society. People with disabilities should not be left behind and if universal design principles are considered, the long-term implications will benefit PWD in key areas of education, employment and mobility. Studies in Ontario show that the economic opportunities in Canada and worldwide are huge and growing. As mentioned earlier, the WHO considers this more than a health-related problem; it is a complex phenomenon that requires new bold ideas and methods. Most importantly PWD have to be part of the planning and design of new projects and form part of a “design with” rather than “design for” mentality. In order to embrace a broader public discourse on this discussion, we can look towards increased internet access, where PWD can themselves comment and give feedback on projects and ideas in an iterative manner that moves solutions forward. This is why it is also so important to make sure that websites conform to standards of accessibility. In many ways these complex problems require simple solutions. But it is only through supportive government funding and a policy focus that rewards innovation and risk-taking will we move closer to the stated UN guiding principle of  “full and effective participation and inclusion in society”.

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