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Debunking 7 myths and embracing a universal design mindset

January 04, 2023

By Pamela Butvin

True accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. The right approach can make buildings equitable for all.

As a person living with an inflammatory disease who often travels with my husband who uses a wheelchair, I’ve had a chance to experience firsthand the challenges that come with a lack of universal design. They include convoluted ramp entrances, steep-slope parking spaces, hidden elevators, and tacked-on attempts at accessibility. All of these lessen a positive experience of a place and in some cases hinder access. As an architect and designer, these experiences have made me highly conscious that building code requirements for accessible design tend to be minimal. They don’t address the multitude of challenges that people living with disabilities experience, whether it’s vision loss, hearing loss, mobility loss, cognitive, or mental health.

As designers, we are responsible to take universal design much further and help clients create equitable spaces.

At the Roy Bickel Public School in Grande Prairie, Alberta, two saw cuts in the middle of the sidewalk lead people toward the door, which can be helpful for those with some visual impairments.

What is universal design?

Universal design focuses on user-centric accessibility for people with diverse needs—physical and mental. It goes beyond minimum code standards. Accessibility is really about code compliance for barrier-free design and the minimum standards for building permit approval. However, universal design looks at accessibility through the lens of equity. It strives to make space accessible to everyone.

The myths that hamper design

For whatever reasons, designers (myself included) often miss the chance to think holistically about universal accessibility. We’re letting several myths get in the way. It’s useful for designers to debunk these myths, so we can better understand how to practice universal design. Then we can challenge ourselves to design better places for everyone in the community.

Myth 1: Code covers accessible design

I hear this again and again, but it simply isn’t true. Code is a minimal and often old standard that doesn’t cover constituencies of users evenly and doesn’t go far enough. Current code mostly addresses mobility challenges. We need to think about who the users are and who the users could be rather than simply meeting the minimum code.

Here’s an example. An elevator, which is required in all public multistory buildings, may be in a location that is difficult to find—or even hidden behind a secured door. The owner has met code; they provided access to all public floors. But people with mobility challenges, vision loss, cognitive, or mental health disabilities have suddenly lost their independence. They cannot easily access other public floors of the building. 

British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) Health Sciences Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia, features textured floors for wayfinding, building directory listings in Braille, and it earned the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™.

Myth 2: We’re doing okay with accessibility in the industry

The push for universal design is not new. Edmund “Ed” Desjardins, who suffered a spinal cord injury in World War II, advocated for curb ramps and barrier-free buildings in Canada beginning in 1944. Around the same time, injured WWII vets and those suffering from the polio epidemic initiated a push for accessibility in the US. While much was achieved (passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example), we still have a long way to go.

It’s quite likely we can look around our own community and point to a building—old or new—that still lacks minimum code compliance or design features that promote equitable accessibility. I’ve attended conferences in modern hotels that lack washrooms on every floor. This means attendees must use an elevator to access the washroom between events. It adds inconvenience for those that may have vision or mobility challenges.

Myth 3: Universal design is bad for aesthetics and costs too much

There’s no reason that universal design features can’t look good and be cost neutral. This is especially true when designers are given a chance to integrate them in the building design from the early stages. A thoughtful designer can include universal design features and make them aesthetically pleasing for multiple senses. For example, attractive outdoor lighting features at low height levels help with wayfinding and guide people with low vision or cognitive challenges.

If universal design features are an afterthought and just tacked on to a finished design, chances are greater they will show poorly and cost more. Part of the mindset change requires us to embrace the opportunity—on day one of design—to create design features that seamlessly increase accessibility, are visually attractive, and feel good to use. What about existing buildings? If we maintain a high standard for seamless and elegant universal design in new buildings, we can also raise the standard for retrofits.

A thoughtful designer can include universal design features and make them aesthetically pleasing for multiple senses.

Myth 4: Universal design is prescriptive

Designing flexible spaces that can adjust to a variety of user needs is important. True flexibility means using universal design features that accommodate a wide range of preferences and abilities. One of the seven principles developed by the North Carolina State University Center for Universal Design is “flexibility in use.”

Design should provide choices in methods of use. This can include the placement of seating at regular intervals along a long corridor or pathway, which allows people to move at their own pace and pause as needed. It allows those who are tired, have difficulty with mobility, or are traveling with young children to take breaks along the way.

Myth 5: Accessibility is just about wheelchair access

Wheelchair access is an important and often a highly visible aspect of accessible design. But we must consider accessibility for a wide range of users—including those with cognitive issues or autism spectrum disorders.

Sight is a major issue that affects many millions. The Canadian government disability survey says 5% of the population has a sight disability and 5% has a hearing disability. To be broadly accessible, wayfinding in public spaces must account for those with cognitive, sight, or hearing challenges. Smart phone apps could be of great assistance. They can help occupants and visitors with personalized experiences and guide them as they navigate buildings like libraries, museums, and hospitals.

Myth 6: We’re waiting on design interventions that haven’t been developed yet

In many cases, design interventions and solutions already exist. These include magnification scanners in grocery stores for reading labels and tactile surfaces near elevators, escalators, and pathway intersections that assist in wayfinding. Assistive technology (AT) refers to any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons living with disabilities. By having an AT discussion at the start of the design process, design teams allow for an integration of assistive devices into the building design. 

The main public entry at the Royal Columbian Hospital’s Mental Health and Substance Use Wellness Centre in New Westminster, British Columbia, features a flush drop off, wheelchair-accessible outdoor furniture, and spaced trees, columns, tables to ensure clear access.

An audio induction loop (AIL) system can improve communication. In an AIL, a cable circles a room or is worn around the neck and transmits sound electromagnetically. A hearing aid, cochlear implant, or headset picks up the electromagnetic signal. When the telecoil is turned on in an individual’s hearing aid or cochlear implant they are tied into the audio loop.

Our designs can incorporate new technology that uses AILs and the smart phone apps mentioned above.

Focusing on universality earlier in the design process is critical. It helps designers see the gaps where technological solutions or design changes are needed to boost accessibility.

Myth 7: Accessibility is best left to specialists

There’s great value in using accessibility experts in the design process, of course. We should continue to do so. To achieve and implement universal design, however, we need planners, designers, owners, operators, and managers to get on board too.

In particular, universal design requires greater involvement from operations. Sometimes, even when a facility has been properly designed, operators and managers are not implementing its universal features properly. Take my experience while with my husband at a recently built public building. During a storm, we found a secondary accessible entry at street level, but it was locked. We endured storm-driven wind and rain while we waited for security to open the door. Building commissioning (ensuring that operators understand how to best operate and maintain their buildings as designed), therefore, is a key aspect of universal design.

Universal design isn’t a checklist

Universal design should be fundamental to how designers approach their work. It must be applied by the designer and building owner working together. Designing for all must be more than working through a checklist. It is a process that accounts for the whole building, which requires an awareness and appreciation of the diverse needs of the users in mobility, vision, hearing, or cognition. The designer and client must start the conversation about the universal experience early in the design process. Incorporating these ideas in initial design group meetings allows the team to fully incorporate universality and improve the user experience. This reduces a need for expensive retrofits and renovations during construction or post facility occupancy.

Universal design requires a change in mindset to create inclusive communities. To achieve it, we must adopt a person-centered approach to design which understands the diversity of human experience.

  • Pamela Butvin

    Pamela values building inclusive environments for all, and to her that means having the right team and using creativity to design welcoming, fiscally responsible, and environmentally sustainable designs.

    Contact Pamela
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