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Feature article

Good Access is Invisible:

Universal Design Enhancing Sustainability

Human ability should not be viewed as an abled/disabled dichotomy, but rather as a continuum that varies throughout a person’s life. Society’s collective failure to deliver an accessible built environment stems from our assumptions of an extremely narrow range of variation in human ability.

However these assumptions are at odds with that of any ‘typical’ population. Designing a building, or any space, such that its accessibility ‘features’ are invisible is the ultimate solution. Designing in accordance with principles known as Universal Design not only assists in this regard, but also enhances sustainability.

How should built environment design professionals understand and respond to ‘disability’? To begin to understand the relationship between disability and the built environment we should first have a clear definition of disability. Historically defining disability has proved difficult. Factors adding to this complexity include: cultural and ethnographic differences, popular versus legal definitions, and the evolving relationship between society and people with disabilities. The most accepted definition is that of the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning and Health (the ICF). The ICF interprets disability as having three manifestations:

      • Impairment

      • Restriction on activities

      • Social context

For example, a lower spinal injury (impairment) requiring the person to use a wheelchair may lead to difficulty entering a restaurant with a stepped entry (activity restriction) presenting a barrier to socialising with family and friends (social exclusion). Note that it is the built environment barrier – in this case the building entry – which ‘disables’ the person.

People with disabilities are not a fringe group on the periphery of society. At the 2011 Australian Census one in five people self-identified as having a disability. It is a fact that almost everyone will experience a period of disability in their lifetimes. It is therefore puzzling that so much of the built environment has been designed to suit only a portion of society, the temporarily able bodied, while the needs of a large minority have been given little thought by designers and planners. The accessibility of the built environment is certainly improving as new building and planning regulations come into force. However this has been achieved mostly by the stick of coercive regulation rather than any emerging consensus on the need to incorporate Universal Design (UD).

Proponents of UD argue that today’s built environments are not cost-effective because they artificially create a class of special needs users who require costly special provisions. The UD advocates seek to replace conventional accessibility standards with design principles that increase access for everyone. They argue that it is more cost-effective to satisfy special needs of users in the basic design of projects than to add special provisions to overcome potential obstacles that should have been designed out in the first place. As an example, a public building may be designed with its ground floor level half a metre above the pavement level immediately adjacent to the entrance. This results in three steps and the obligatory addition of a ramp for wheelchair users. A designer using UD principles would have placed the building entry at the same level as the adjacent pavement, eliminating the need for any steps or ramps.

Nonetheless, property and builders’ organisations have opposed improving access requirements on the grounds of increased cost. Such views are however countered by research showing marginal cost differences – only a one to two per cent increase in construction costs1 2 3 when UD is a primary consideration from the concept stage. There is a strong argument for immediate adoption of UD principles because the built environment evolves slowly with much of our current building stock and infrastructure presenting barriers to many people every day.

So do built environment design professionals think about the needs of the people who ultimately become the users with their spectrum of abilities? Or is there a widespread attitude of reluctantly having to design to meet pesky minimum access requirements? Designers are part of society and therefore as likely to follow societal trends outside their realm of expertise as anyone else. We need to understand why the needs of one in five people have been ignored, particularly up until the emergence of accessibility regulations around the middle of the twentieth century.

One way to fathom this oversight is to consider how people with disabilities have been, and are currently perceived. Various models of disability have been devised by social scientists in an attempt to understand society’s perception of the ‘otherness’ of disability.

Prior to World War II society’s perception and treatment of people with disabilities was based on an institutional model. In this model people with disabilities were segregated with institutional care being provided by the state. This was a situation viewed by society as an adequate and acceptable response to their disability or difference. The framing of disability in such institutions by concepts such as personal tragedy, crippled, or crazy, was commonplace. Institutionalisation was considered to be ‘for the good and protection of society’. This was supported by the doctrine of eugenics within medicine justifying the highly objectionable routine sterilisation of women and girls with intellectual disabilities. As people with disabilities were hidden behind institutional walls designers felt little compulsion to meet their needs.

Post World War II the expansion in bio-scientific knowledge and technology within medicine and pharmacology introduced considerable advancements in the ability to prevent, treat and cure causes of impairment resulting in the medicalisation of disability – the medical model. The medical model concentrates on diagnosis, treatment and the functional capacity of the disease state of the patient – all externally imposed classifications, with medical professionals as the gatekeepers to benefits. People were encouraged to strive to overcome their supposed biological inferiority, with the assistance of treatments and technological aids. Thus the responsibility to overcome barriers lay with the individual with the disability. This approach allowed the designer to abdicate from responsibility for accessible design in the built environment.  The medical model, despite being the child of modernism, remains the most influential in our post-modern world.

By the late 1970s the dominance of the medical and institutional models came under challenge with the emergence of a disability rights movement which politicised disability. This followed the emergence in preceding decades of activism associated with identity politics for many downtrodden groups in society.

The ‘social model’ of disability that subsequently emerged is rights-based, emphasising the issues of justice and entitlement and the need for inclusive and empowering change in the social and physical environments. This more contemporary model views disability as a product of the interaction between individuals and their surroundings attributing the cause of disability to institutional, environmental and attitudinal barriers. Thus disability is imposed from without rather than residing within the individual, representing a shift of causality from the individual to the environment. Abruptly, designers become the disablers.

Within this historical context, the trivialisation of access and the lack of application of universal design principles by built environment designers can therefore be more easily understood. A majority are still trapped within the mentality of the medical model. Thus a range of regulations, standards and requirements has been necessary to achieve minimum access standards. Until the majority of designers begin to perceive people with disabilities via the social model it is unlikely that UD principles will be embraced sufficiently to avert the need for further coercive legislation.

While accessibility is an aspect of UD, each field has a different origin. Accessibility in built environment design is advocated by user groups and their representative bodies, disabled persons’ organisations. These minority groups are chronically under-resourced and rarely have access to built environment design professionals. They therefore lack the benefit of knowledge available from built environment practices. The result is a focus on incremental change through piecemeal legislation. This fits with the political orthodoxy of government fine-tuning rather than enacting major reforms. The resulting legislative approach is prescriptive and is best illustrated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (1990). The ADA contains provisions listing the minimum and maximum heights of a mirror in an accessible public convenience. Similarly precisely specified is the set up of an accessible shooting range. Myriad other micro-requirements crowd and confound any coherent overall strategy for equity of access. This approach rarely results in thoughtful, systems-oriented design solutions.

In comparison, advocates of UD take a more ‘universalist’ view of the built environment where accessibility should be a primary design feature that is integrated within design systems. Where UD is appropriately integrated it is effectively invisible. Those schooled in UD reject the need for legislative provisions believing them to result in diminished design outcomes. In effect, compulsion inhibits design freedom, potentially thwarting best case solutions. Advocacy by universalist built environment professionals has led to a change from a prescriptive approach. This is demonstrated in the National Construction Code. In contrast to a prescriptive approach, the Code provides ‘performance based’ guidelines where ‘deemed to satisfy’ examples of accessibility requirements are given. The designer remains free to propose alternate design solutions that can be shown to be equivalent to the ‘deemed to satisfy’ provisions.

To provide equitable access designers should be familiar with the knowledge practice of UD and should perceive people with disabilities through the lens of the social model. Achieving a community of such design professionals will require educational institutions to include UD as a core subject within undergraduate degree courses.

Sustainability is classically described as the ‘three-legged stool’ of Economic, Environmental and Social taxonomies. They are often mutually reinforcing. Economic Sustainability can be defined as ‘the use of various strategies for employing existing resources optimally so that  a responsible and beneficial balance can be achieved over the longer term.’⁴ Environmental Sustainability may be understood as ‘how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time.’⁵ Finally Social Sustainability is more difficult to crystallise encompassing many factors including human rights, labour rights, and corporate governance. Through application of UD principles, built environment designers can influence all three aspects of sustainability. For example the optimal use of existing resources can be achieved by UD in commercial buildings and infrastructure which reduce workplace injury, reduce maintenance costs and enhance business efficiency through improved dispatch/receiving speeds. UD will minimise the need for retrofitting, reducing building material resource demands and­­­ minimising landfill waste. Perhaps the greatest potential benefits are to be achieved through reducing social exclusion. People with disabilities are constantly faced with physical barriers to participation, whether this be in education, employment, obtaining goods and services, leisure and interacting with friends and family.

Without the essential element of UD, the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social sustainability will not be fully addressed. The links between UD and sustainability, both the obvious and the more subtle, are numerous. UD will assist people to age in place, to obtain employment, to strengthen families, and to allow people with a disability to be included more in community life. Without universally designed buildings and infrastructure, people with disabilities and older persons will be at risk of further marginalisation, neglect and injury. Now is the time for built environment designers to address the needs of people of all abilities.


Mary Ann Jackson is an Architect, Planner and Access Consultant. She is Managing Director of Visionary Design Development Pty Ltd.

Ralph Green is a Vision Scientist, Social Scientist and Director of Research at Visionary Design Development Pty Ltd.

  1. Hill, M., Breaking into Adaptable Housing: A Cost Benefit Analysis of Adaptable Homes. ACT Adaptable and Accessible Housing Conference, 1999.
  2. Kleinitz, P., New Pathways to Understanding the True Costs of Disability: Outlining the Economic Case for Inclusion of People with Disability in Developing Countries. Social Science (International Development). Melbourne, RMIT University: 83, 2006.
  3. Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB), Regulation Impact Statement – Access to Premises. Canberra, Australian Government, 2009
  4. sustainability.html#ixzz2rrGmErT4

Further Reading _ For Seven Principles of UD see­­­­