Bif Notes No. 25 Argument Against Universal Design

Universal Design is an architectural theory of design meant to cater to the needs of all people at the same time, in the same environment. This includes the elderly and people with and without disabilities. The idea is that the design elements used in universal design will benefit all people and therefore aren’t inherently accessibility features. This is an okay idea on the surface but has what I consider one major flaw. It gives the impression that something like design elements meant to increase accessibility shouldn’t exclusively consider and be made for disabled people.

This is an apparently wild concept because all the time I see arguments for universal design touting how it’s the greater good because it’s good for everyone. But why does it need to be good for everyone? Not everyone needs things like accessible entrances or ramps and elevators to different levels of a building. Those are features that improve the independence of disabled people. They can also be made to be aesthetically pleasing and unobtrusive, like any other architectural design choice.

In fact some of the most successful examples of universal design that I’ve seen have incorporated a half flight of stairs and a ramp seamlessly together. Perhaps that is truly what universal design is meant to be, and if that’s the case, so be it. But more often the prevailing argument seems to be that universal design is great because it takes the focus off the need for accessibility features entirely, and that’s something I can’t get behind. By all means, let’s share spaces together. But don’t glom onto things meant for disabled people or make us feel wrong for needing them in the first place.

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