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Universal Design

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Posted February 01, 2018

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What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is the design of products and environments that are accessible, understandable, and usable to all without specialized modifications or adaptations. Universal design is not the design for one person or a group of people, it is inclusive design. Universal design does not just benefit the individual but benefits society and businesses.

In 1997, The 7 Principles for Universal Design were established by a team of product designers, engineers, architects, and environmental design through the North Carolina State University to help guide and educate about the universal design process.

The 7 Principles for Universal Design

The Universal Design Principles defined by North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design.

Equitable Use

Principle 1: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Flexibility in Use

Principle 2: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Simple and Intuitive Use

Principle 3: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Perceptible Information

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

Tolerance for Error

Principle 5: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Low Physical Effort

Principle 6: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Principle 7: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

The 7 Principles for Universal Design were established for architecture and industrial design but are also being applied to web design and education.

Universal Design for the Physical World

Universal Design for the Physical World, can apply to physical buildings, walkways, transportation, signs, technology, and emergency services.

Physical building can contain a multitude of barriers. Sidewalks, stairs, entrances, doors, and different levels can make a building accessible or inaccessible.

In applying Universal Design Principle 1, Equitable Use, building design should have the same entrance for all users, such as eliminating steps and ramps to have a flat entrance. An automatic opening door for all people would be the best option for equitable use. In this instance, all users enter and exit the building in the same manner.

As another example, for transportation, Principle 4 (Principle Information) establishes that public transportation has both audible and visual announcements for arrival, has tactile maps and guides, and includes lights along platforms for warnings.

Universal Design for the Web

Universal Design for the Web takes into account images, color, contrast, links, headings, tables, and forms to name a few. Site visitors access and experience the web in different ways and adhering to the principles of Universal Design can help ensure an optimal user experience for all end-users, regardless of their individual abilities.

People who use screen readers will experience barriers on a website if an image doesn’t have appropriate alternative text to describe the image. If a form doesn’t have appropriate labels, the screen reader will not relay the information the user needs to type into an input field.

One approach to make websites accessible leverages Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). ARIA can be used to help communicate page element information to  screen readers. For example, ARIA can be used to help identify the page structure or read form labels that are not seen visually but are read by screen readers.

For users who are unable to use a computer mouse or trackpad, websites also need to be accessible with only a keyboard. Keyboard users need to be able to tab to page elements such as links and forms. Keyboard users need to be able to activate and engage with the the content with the tab key, spacebar, enter key, or a combination of keys. Programmers must take steps to ensure proper keyboard focus.

Universal Design for Learning

As there are different ways to engage with web content and the physical world, there are different ways of learning. Universal design is applied to education and learning processes. Everyone learns using different methods and in different ways. By creating a universal design for teaching and learning, a diverse number of learners can consume the same information. Universal Design for Learning has three components: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.

Providing multiple means of representation gives learners different ways to perceive information. The instruction gives the information in different formats, such as print, visual, and audio. This will give learners more than one way to process and apply the knowledge.

Supplying multiple means of action and expression provides the learners different ways to express and demonstrate knowledge they have learned. Traditionally, this has been done through quizzes and tests but also can be done in other creative means, such as creating projects. Multiple means of action and expression also focuses on options for physical action that goes beyond printed material, options for expression and communication, and options for executive function, such as setting long-term goals and plans to achieve and review their progress.

Providing multiple means of engagement allows learners to make personal connection to education to learn the importance. Learners can engage with education through research projects, experiments, lessons, and group activities. Through multiple means of engagement learners have the opportunity to create their drive to learn and experience knowledge.

Source Materials

National Center on Universal Design for Learning

National Disability Authority Centre for Excellence in Universal Design – What is Universal Design?

North Carolina State University – The Center For Universal Design, College of Design

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