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What is Universal Design?

Last updated on November 13, 2019

Universal Design is an architectural concept that aims to create spaces that are accessible by everyone, regardless of age, size, and ability. When buildings are designed in this way, there is no need for corrections or modifications to the original design. In the design process, all the designer has to do is consider the needs of everyone, fully abled and disabled, and proceed that way. Universal design is good and simple design.
There are seven principles that were developed in 1997 by a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers. If a design follows these seven principles, it is considered universal design.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

The first principle of universal design is pretty self-explanatory; it states that design should be conducive to people of all abilities. It should not segregate as wheelchair ramps often do. Everyone can use relatively the same paths in a space.

One place where this is not implemented would be in Merion Hall. There is a wheelchair ramp at the back of Merion where there are ways that someone in a wheelchair or has trouble using stairs could enter via a back entrance, but the fact that they can not access the front due to stairs makes the design inequitable in use.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

Desks in Bellarmine Hall designated for left-handed and right-handed users.

This principle requires that the design be usable in different ways. An example is a chair that can be adjusted to suit different heights or a desk that can be used by someone who is left or right handed. Basically, the user is comfortable no matter what their ability or size.

Classrooms on our campus have a lot of shortcomings in this department. In Bellarmine, the desks are created for people who are either left or right-handed; both options are available, but universal design means a user who is a righty can use the same desk as someone who is a lefty. Other classrooms are better in the fact that students are at a longer table, but there is often no way to adjust the height of seats or tables. Imagine someone who is under five feet tall trying to use the same desk in a Merion Hall classroom as someone who is almost seven feet tall; neither user would be comfortable.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

A printing station in Francis A. Drexel Library.

Simple and intuitive use indicates that the use of the design is easy to understand regardless of the user’s knowledge or skill level, language skills or ability to concentrate.

On St. Joe’s campus, the technology that is made available to all students is very simple and easy to use.  As freshmen at orientation and in the first week of school, we are taught by upperclassmen and the librarians how to access different sites and use the printers located in different buildings around campus.  There is also usually signage around the printers so if someone was to get confused on how to work something, there are step by step directions with illustrations on how to use the technology.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Basically, there shouldn’t be much room for accidents that are based on the user not knowing something about the design.

One way that Saint Joe’s can improve upon this principle is by including captions on all videos that are used in order to accomodate the hearing impaired.  Most of the signage used in buildings and around campus is easy to read and understand and uses colors and language that are straightforward to comprehend.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

A hallway in Francis A. Drexel Library with a clearly visible “exit” sign.

Tolerance for error is meant to minimize the probability of dangers and meant to sure the safety of all of those inhabiting a certain area. These can include signs that alert pedestrians of possible dangers or hazards, and also have objects in place that can help should an accident occur.

Saint Joseph’s utilizes the principle of tolerance for error very well. A common failsafe that can be found everywhere is a fire alarm. The type of alarm can differ, as some may automatically detect smoke and set off, while others required to be pulled if a person spots smoke or fire. Fire extinguishers are also common. Exit signs can provide clarity and helpful assistance during emergencies as well. As for external tolerance for error, emergency posts can be found around Saint Joseph’s Campus. These are black with blue glowing lights at the top of them (increases visibility), and can be used to call for services in the event of danger. Common hazard signs, such as crossing signs, can be found as well.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

This “push to open” button for wheelchair users in Bronstein Hall makes the building more accessible.

As one might guess from the title, this principle calls for low physical effort. Users shouldn’t have to exert themselves too much physically when they are using a device or navigating a space. They also shouldn’t be forced into unnatural body movements that could hurt them.

In the Post Learning Commons Library, the elevator would be a prime example of a device that thrives on low physical efforts. Users are not forced to use any energy besides walking in or out, or perform any movements besides standing straight up. Many buildings that have multiple floors, such as the residence halls or Merion Hall, have elevators in place as well that allow for low physical activity. Unfortunately, there are numerous inclines and stairs surrounding Sweeney Field, the PLC, and Barberlin Hall, which would require energy to ascend and descend. There are other locations around campus that require use of physical activity as well in order to move around, such as the plaza outside of Merion Hall. Some buildings, like Bronstein hall, have buttons that will open a door automatically with a simple push, negating the need to pull or push heavy handles. It’s also great for people to who physically unable to open doors.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

The POD store’s high tables don’t allow access to wheelchair users.

The last principle of universal design stipulates that all areas must have enough space to accommodate all users, regardless of size or mobility status. All features in a space must be easily accessible for people standing or sitting, and there must be sufficient room for assistive devices. For example, in a parking space marked for people with disabilities, cars with ramps would need to be able to fit with room to spare.

In Post Learning Commons, a lot of the seating is theoretically accessible, with the desk space able to be reached by people who do and do not use wheelchairs.

Someone in a wheelchair could technically use this desktop on the “new” side of the library, but would immediately counter an obstacle in moving the chairs. The library currently does not have any designated laptop areas for people in wheelchairs.

This area, meanwhile, is accessible only to people who are able to sit in the high chairs. While the POD area of the library does have tables which can accommodate people who use wheelchairs, it does not comply with universal design standards because the space cannot be used by people of all physical abilities. Someone who has trouble using their legs would have a hard time using the tall chair, and someone in a wheelchair certainly couldn’t reach the high counter.

For additional reading on the Principles of Universal Design, click here.

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