Universal Design (UD) is a term originally coined by Ron Mace, who is now deceased, and who was architect at North Carolina State University. It’s now the home of the Center for Universal Design. See also, for example, Universal Design Education and the Institute for Human Centered Design.
In a nutshell, Universal design (UD) is "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."
—Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, Ron Mace
The ADA and its predecessor, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, along with a number of other earlier federal laws and regulations, lay the legal groundwork for architectural and design accessibility requirements. The requirements are now captured in the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, and complemented by the work of the U.S. Access Board.
Key provisions of the ADA that impact UD are “program accessibility” and “equally effective communications.”
Program accessibility in Title II of the ADA applies to “public entities” like the University of Missouri. It requires that such entities ensure that all of their programs, services, and activities, when viewed in their entirety, are accessible to people with disabilities. Program access is intended to remove physical barriers to services, programs, and activities, but it generally does not require that a public entity make each facility, or each part of a facility, accessible.
Equally effective communication, also from Title II, requires that public entities ensure that their communications with people with disabilities are as effective as communications with others, except when the entity can show that providing effective communication would fundamentally alter the nature of the service or program in question or would result in an undue financial and administrative burden.
Universal design builds in these legal requirements but takes a much broader approach. Its primary emphasis is on architecture and design.
- Equitable Use—The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
- Flexibility in Use—The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- Simple and Intuitive Use—Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
- Perceptible Information—The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
- Tolerance for Error—The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Low Physical Effort—The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Size and Space for Approach and Use—Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.