Towards being Universal

Graphical representation of various sectors of disabled communities and their way of accessing information

I was in College in my 4th year of Bachelor of Architecture when I got introduced to the topic of Universal Design. It was a one-day assignment and after submission, we were let off for the day. Eventually, like all assignments, it also got lost under the pile of sheets and never seen again. I won’t say I wasn’t taught enough in my college. Indeed, we were introduced to all topics of urban design, heritage, and restoration, climatology, economics, management, sustainability, and many more. However, Universal design remained just like one assignment and never got incorporated in any other jury projects. I recently came across a course and it reminded me of things I already knew but forgot to implement. So here is the exploration of the topic I made as a beginner so far and I hope with this brief others get to explore and learn its importance.

So, what is Universal design? Why isn’t it still in practice? Should we care about disabled individuals if we are not one among them? Why separate rules and spaces for them when they can be with us, independent, working, and proud?

“Universal design is a design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

– Ron Mace, 1985

Let’s start with a practical example of designing a building for people with disabilities in terms of providing accessibility. It usually ends in a two-stage process of development. First, with the target audience in mind. Then, the design has to be modified to provide accessibility for an audience that had been overlooked initially. This increases cost, and often, the end product lacks the unity of a well-designed product. Universal design has the potential to incorporate accessibility into the creation of a product used by a broad spectrum of people without the added expense of retrofitting. Well, the corporate sector will understand the above example better. However, the problems don’t imply only the expense or the end product being appealing or not. We need to realize that disabled persons are humans too and have the same civil rights as us so why adapting designs for them instead of having one code for all from the beginning which further doesn’t mean the design has to be the same, but the standards can be.

Graphic representation of individuals with disability for the comunity as a whole

Universal Design is a paradigm that has emerged from a general approach to designing inclusive environments, typically called barrier-free design in the words of the Center for Universal Design, an approach that called for 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. Wheelchair ramps and curb cuts are one very common real-world example of universal design.


The concept of universal design started in the 20th century after modern society gradually came to recognize a responsibility to be inclusive. Disable person like all other communities started to demand equal rights in society. Communities focused on empowering the impaired section of society started to take form. They demanded the same education, employment opportunities, and access. Their impairment no longer was a means of lowering their virtue and other capabilities. In the 1960s many such groups coalesced, and together they asserted accessibility as a human right. Then in 1961, The American National Standard Institute published its first standard for accessible design, and over the next decades, state and federal legislation put these standards into law.

As Tom Nugget in the US made the disabled civil rights into operation, so was a game-changer named Javid Abidi in India, who strived hard to fight for the civil rights of disabled individuals. Abidi strongly believed that empowerment of persons with disabilities is connected to education, which in turn hinges on accessibility. And all three are not possible without enabling laws and policies. And the pressure can be built through awareness.

In 2016, after so many petitions and pressure, the RPWD act (The Rights of Persons with Disabilities act) was revised. It promotes and protects the rights and dignity of people with disabilities in various aspects of life — educational, social, legal, economic, cultural, and political. It applies to government, non-government and private organizations. It has mandates and timelines for establishments to ensure accessibility of infrastructure and services. It has implemented mechanisms like Disability Commissioner’s Offices at the Centre and State level, District Committees, Boards and Committees for planning and monitoring the implementation of the Act, Special Courts at District level, and so on. It has penalties in case of violation of any provisions of the Act. For more information see, Rights of Persons with Disabilities RPWD Act 2016

It was in the 2016 revised RPWD act that the disabled had legal rights against discrimination which was already a law in the US from 1990 under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the 90s, many accessible elements were add-ons to other structures, like the addition of ramps or lifts. These add-ons required a redesign and additional cost. They often segregated those with physical challenges from the rest of the public. This afterthought approach to accessibility was unsatisfactory. In response, a team of experts at North Carolina State University released a guide offering “Seven Principles of Universal Design.”


  • Equitable use: When possible, the design should be usable by all users, in a secure, safe, and comfortable manner.
  • Flexibility in use: It aims to make the environment responsive and simple. Every individual has different paces of communicating with the environment. Flexibility in use means creating a design for the full range of human movement.
  • Simple and intuitive: The universal design avoids unnecessary complexity. Information should be consistent and predictable, with the important information placed prominently. Icons and graphics should be used to support a wide range of literacy and language abilities.
  • Perceptible information: Many modes of communication can be used to share information that can be accessed by all. Visual, verbal, and tactile cues can reach a larger spectrum of diverse individuals.
  • Tolerance for error: Universal design aims to minimize hazards and provide clear warnings. Wherever possible, safety is built into the design through fail-safes
  • Low physical effort: Lowering the amount of force a person needs to move through the environment means a wider range of people can participate. Some examples include setting maximum grade for a ramp or maximum force needed to open a door.
  • Adequate space for use: Appropriate size and space should be provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

In 2011, in India, the need was raised to contextualized Universal design principles which will follow a sequential process to address the needs of diverse Indian users across ability, age, socio-economic strata, and culture [Mullick, 2011; Khare, 2011]. Developed at the National Institute of Design and co-authored by nine Indian experts from premier academic institutions and disability organizations, five universal design principles were formulated. These principles overlay the functional seven principles of universal design and are organized for Indian practice towards social and economic inclusion.


  • Equitable/ Saman: The design is fair and non-discriminating to diverse users in the Indian context
  • Usable/ Sahaj: The design is operable by all users in the Indian context.
  • Cultural / Sanskritik: The design respects the cultural past and the changing present assist all users in the Indian context.
  • Economy/ Sasta: The design respects affordability and cost considerations for diverse users in the Indian context.
  • Aesthetics / Sundar: The design employs aesthetics to promote social integration among users in the Indian context.

Although the principles have been contextualized to stand and speak of Indianness. This doesn’t imply using the design elements which once considered a necessity without considering a broader spectrum of individuals should continue to be in practice One such example is a saying by Mullick, where to support the move to derive India’s own UDI principles, He said,

“Ramps in India often come with breakers, which are absent in most ramps abroad. It’s because in India wheelchairs are always pushed by someone, so the breaker prevents the wheelchair from rolling back, and in abroad since wheelchairs are motor-driven, so ramps are without breakers”.

This got me into the curiosity of universal design because everyone can’t afford motor-driven wheelchairs abroad, so why they don’t need breakers. Breakers act for what they are mean to do stop and speed control. So if it prevents the fall, it also obstructs a disabled person from moving on their own through the ramp. In abroad breakers are considered more as an on-road obstruction for blind people and wheelchair users rather than convenience. They often provide steel grated surfaces or tactile ground surface indicators for less fiction and guidance for them. So, ask yourself which is better practice and what should be followed. All because of fear of losing identity and an ongoing habit of carrying old practices and calling it Indian context, doesn’t mean it would be proper for the society to still implement and carry on.


As an architect, we must figure out what’s the best inclusive practice to follow for a particular design and implement it from the start rather than incorporating or retrofitting it in the end to just pass it on for legal procedures. The aim is to provide the same (or equivalent) experiences, activities, and services to everyone. It is accepted that these may have to be provided through slightly different routes or interfaces, but designers should strive to create a design that does not exclude or segregate.

“A Universally Designed product is the goal: Universal Design is the process”

It is not assumed or expected that a 100% universal solution will be achieved, or is achievable, for any given design. Rather Universal Design should be a goal that a designer strives to achieve.

You can read about the revised Indian standards for universal design following this link, Harmonized guidelines for barrier-free design


National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP)

Town and Country planning organization

An Introduction to Accessibility and Inclusive Design, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Seven principles of Universal Design Centre for Excellence in Universal Design

Universal Design India principles @ 2011; A Collaborative process of developing design principles (Khare Rachna, Mullick Abir, Raheja Gaurav),

History of Universal Design

What is Universal Design

Architect + Urbanist

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