Party Walls

Tech Notes: Universal Design vs. Accessible Design

“Isn’t Universal Design just a different term for Accessible Design?” We hear this from architects and designers a lot. While similarities exist, Accessible Design and Universal Design are actually quite different.

outlets, switches, env controls

This image depicts the prescriptive Accessible Design requirements for light switches and operable parts under the Fair Housing Act. Unlike Universal Design, Accessible Design is not intended to be flexible, with little or no room for tolerance.

The term “Accessible Design” typically refers to compliance with Federal accessibility laws and state and local building codes; including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, among others. Accessible Design requirements are based on anthropometric research – or the study of the human body – and are intended to address people with disabilities. Laws and codes that require compliance with Accessible Design requirements include little or no room for tolerance.

Examples of Accessible Design requirements include:

  • The cross slope of an accessible route must not exceed 2%; the running slope of a ramp must not exceed 8.33%;
  • A 30 x 48 inch clear floor space must be centered on the kitchen sink to accommodate a parallel approach;
  • Accessible parking spaces must be at least 96 inches wide and served by an adjacent access aisle that is at least 60 inches wide; and
  • Light switches and operable parts must be mounted between 15 and 48 inches above the finished floor.

Universal Design, while deeply rooted in designing for people with disabilities, is intended to create equitable and usable spaces for people of all abilities and ages. Unlike Accessible Design, Universal Design is not required by Federal law, nor are Universal Design strategies uniformly codified by any one governing institution. By intent, Universal Design strategies are flexible, and can vary based on an occupant’s specific needs. In addition, Universal Design strategies are inclusive of many types of disabilities not otherwise addressed by accessibility laws and codes; including, cognitive and learning disabilities, sensory disabilities, and mental and emotional disabilities.

Examples of Universal Design strategies include:

  • Widen doorways and routes, provide flexible use of space, and increase usability beyond ADA requirements;
  • Apply strategies that use color, texture, and perceptible information to aide individuals with autism, learning disabilities, and cognitive disabilities;
  • Implement wayfinding strategies to help individuals navigate through spaces with ease, including signage, design elements, technology, and intuitive flow;

    Universal Design Kitchen

    The image of a Universal Design kitchen demonstrates unique lighting strategies, various work and seating options, and flexible use of fixtures and appliances. Unlike Accessible Design, Universal Design strategies are not prescriptive and can vary based on an occupant’s needs.

  • Offer accessible technology that encompasses the needs of people with disabilities; including audio and visual equipment, and “smart home” technology; and
  • Remove impediments to safety that cause anxiety, stress, and psychological harm to provide easy access to all features, elements, and spaces of buildings and communities.

At their core, Universal Design strategies strive to promote flexible, usable, and intuitive spaces that can contribute to reducing anxiety, promoting safety, and leading to overall healthier, more equitable, and more usable environments for all building occupants.

In short, it is important to remember that not all Accessible Design is Universal Design; and not all Universal Design is Accessible Design. While similar in their end goal to improve the usability of our built environment, the two design approaches are far from a one-stop answer.

We’re here to help! Contact us to learn more about our accessibility consulting services.

Written by Victoria Lanteigne, Senior Accessibility Consultant

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