Learning About

Defining the Terms

Image: a yellow crosswalk leading to a curb cut. Credit: Anne Zbitnew


There are specific terms and suggested language we use when talking about accessibility. One example is the term “Universal Design” which is the design of an object, environment, or system so it can be accessed, understood, and used by as many people as possible regardless of their age, size, ability or disability (National Disability Authority, 2020).

Sinead Burke speaks from personal experience in her 2017 Ted Talk, and asks the question, “who are we not designing for?”.

Remember, words and language constantly shift and change over time, and different individuals and groups have different beliefs on what language should be used. It is important to be mindful of words, terms, and phrases used when writing and talking about accessibility and disability as casual use of language can be hurtful, stereotype and stigmatize.

Developing an Understanding

Universal Design and Inclusive Design are terms that can be used interchangeably. They are similar design philosophies that prioritize consideration of diverse needs and abilities in every part of the design process (of environments, objects and systems).

The Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) defines inclusive design as taking into account “differences among individuals and groups when designing something… it can apply to systems, facilities, programs, policies, services and education.” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, n.d.).

Architect Ronald L. Mace originated the term "universal design" to describe the concept of designing things to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status. The focus of universal design tends to be on buildings, parks, spaces and roads (the human-made built environment) with the expectation that architectural design should work for everyone. Some of the principles of universal design include equity, flexibility, simplicity and low physical effort in use and tolerance for error (Center for Universal Design, 2016).

In order for Universal Design to work – it must incorporate two key steps: User Aware Design, which insists that mainstream products, services and environments be as inclusive as possible, and Customisable Design, which insists that adaptation be included in the design process. As much as it is important to design something that works for everyone – single solutions will not be able to accommodate everyone’s needs. Universal Design means that multiple inclusive features and ways to adapt them must be considered in every step of the process (National Disability Authority, 2020).

Ramps are a great example of the basic principle of universal design: if we only build staircases at building entrances, only some people can enter the buildings. But if we construct buildings that have ramps leading up to their doorways, everyone can get into the building with ease. Why then do we keep designing buildings with staircases rather than ramps? Retrofitting buildings and businesses with temporary ramps certainly helps, but to have inclusivity be an option or an afterthought does a disservice to the diverse needs of city-goers.

An example of universal or inclusive design are sidewalk curb cuts which are places where the sidewalk has been cut out to allow for an easy, sloped transition from sidewalk to road. While they were initially developed for people who use wheelchairs, they benefit everyone: people using strollers, bikes, skateboards, scooters, people carrying heavy objects, carts, and dollies. They also offer a smooth transition from sidewalk to street.

Deepening your Understanding

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This episode of design podcast 99% Invisible offers an in-depth look at the history of curb cuts. In the 1970s, a group of disabled students – the “Rolling Quads” at the University of Berkley spearheaded a campaign to make the campus (and the city itself) more accessible. In 1971, the Rolling Quads showed up at the Berkeley City Council and started a call to action – each street corner and popular intersection must include a sidewalk curb cut.

Click on the image below to listen to the 99% Invisible podcast on Curb Cuts.

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Spotlight: Sinéad Burke

Sinéad Burke is acutely aware of details that are practically invisible to many of us. At 105 centimeters (or 3' 5") tall, the designed world -- from the height of a lock on a bathroom door to the range of available shoe sizes -- often inhibits her ability to do things for herself. Here she tells us what it's like to navigate the world as a little person and asks: "Who are we not designing for?" (Ted Talk, 2017).

Headshot of Sinéad Burke

Sinéad Burke

Sinead Burke is a writer and public speaker who advocates for inclusivity in the fashion and design industries. She is the host of As Me, a podcast devoted to deep listening and impactful change that reminds us that “Language is a powerful tool. It does not just name our society. It shapes it.” (Sinead Burke, n.d.).

Sinead is also the host of Extraordinary Women, an interview series with inspiring and intriguing women that looks to redefine conversation around women in the media. In her work as an advocate for making the fashion industry more inclusive, she writes a column in British Vogue. Her regular posts on Instagram are always accompanied by detailed written image descriptions that not only describe the images but offer insight to her personality.

She is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin where she is studying human rights education.