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  • Beth Eakman

Why should I care about Universal Design?

Universal Design (UD) began as an architectural concept around the 1970s in response to activists and people with disabilities demanding access to education. While it's hard to imagine a word in which public buildings didn't have ramps, elevators, and accessible restrooms, there were people who couldn't attend college (or do other things) simply due to the lack of these now-standard features of the built environment. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the 1990s, equity and inclusion in the built environment and beyond became the norm. Think about how many adaptive technologies you use all the time: automatic doors, closed captioning for video, curb cuts! Yes, curb cuts, that slope at street corners that takes you from the sidewalk to the street. Before UD, curbs were constant around corners, so anyone using wheels--a bike, a wheelchair, a rolling cart, a stroller--had a hard drop to negotiate.


Now curb cuts feature raised bumps that communicate the information that users are on the ramp. People of all ages and abilities benefit from these almost invisible UD features. And, that's the concept behind UD: Inclusive design benefits everyone. The philosophy of UD continues to inspire makers across disciplines. Writers test documents to ensure that they are accessible to users of different abilities--physical, visual, aural, neurological, linguistic, and more. Web designers include screen readers for text and alternative text for image-based content. Graphic designers use color, alignment, and specially designed typefaces to make their work accessible by as wide a variety of users as possible. Regardless of ability, UD gives authors and makers a way of thinking that is empathetic; it emphasizes and foregrounds the needs of the user; it inspires innovation and creativity. That's why you should care.

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