Applying the concept of universal design to a school for youth with disabilities

The concept of universal design, a best practice for people with disabilities and beyond, is based on the idea that the production of buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to all – regardless of disability – is a best practice.  This incudes the design of social services for children and families.  Let’s learn a bit more about universal design first.

As the Southwest Center puts it, “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.  Also known as “barrier free” or “inclusive” design, UD blends aesthetics with transparent accessibility from a user-centered perspective.”  There are 7 principles to UD…which North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design explains as follows:

1. Equitable Use – The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  1. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  2. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  3. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
  4. Make the design appealing to all users.

2. Flexibility in Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  1. Provide choice in methods of use.
  2. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.
  3. Facilitate the user’s accuracy and prevision
  4. Provide adaptability to the user’s pace.

3.  Simple and Intuitive Use – Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or education level.

  1. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  2. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  3. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  4. Arrange information consistent with its importance.
  5. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

4.  Perceptible information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  1. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  2. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  3. Maximize “legibility” of essential information.
  4. Maximize elements in ways that be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  5. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

5.  Tolerance for Error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  1. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
  2. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.
  3. Provide fail safe features.
  4. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

6.  Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue.

  1. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  2. Use reasonable operating forces.
  3. Minimize repetitive actions.
  4. Minimize sustained physical effort.

7.  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.

  1. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  2. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  3. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size.
  4. Provide adequate space for the user of assistive devices or personal assistance.

I’ve been reading about UD for years – and struggling to use the concepts in my work as a social worker too, but as I toured the Absolute Residential School (Школа интернат Абсолют) near Moscow in Russia, I was able to see the UD concept in full swing, for the first time in my life.  Designed by a team of architects aided by educators, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and more, this school was truly accessible to everyone.  Founded only three years ago, this school has 98 students, all of whom have some sort of disability – hearing, visual, cognitive, emotional or physical.  While the sad reality was that this school represented the Russian trend towards segregating students with disabilities from mainstream public schools (regardless of cognitive capacity), the very amazing and happy reality was that this school couldn’t have been more full of positivity and happy kids.  Funded primarily by a private foundation with only limited government support, this school hummed with happiness! This blog post was originally published here.



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