Expanding on our Universal Design discussion

In our last theory class with Kolko, we discussed and debated and tried to wrap our heads around: consumption, universal design, and usability. Big stuff.

I want to offer some additional notes about universal design. We read a very brief article by Patricia Moore, one of the leading thinkers in universal design: an approach that advocates designing products and environments to be usable by the greatest range of people possible.

This contradicts a well-known design maxim that “you can’t solve the problem for everyone,” and that it can even become counterproductive in terms of time, cost, and efficacy of the product itself.

It’s natural and understandable for designers who have experience in today’s industry to begin thinking of the constraints that designing universally would put on a project, and you get into circle-talks about not being able to design for everyone and the impracticality of the idea. The danger is if the approach of universal design—and its inherent respect for the people who we are designing for—get thrown out (baby with bathwater).

With all the big ideas we’re discussing, there is a spectrum of action: it is one thing to talk about them on a theory level, it is another to believe them and incorporate them into our personal philosophies, it is another to practice them in our day-to-day jobs, and it is another to try to change the system to accommodate for fundamentals from the get-go.

I came into class last night already believing that universal design is a given and should be included in the design process. But that’s because I’ve already thought about this a lot the past few years. I participated in AIR-Austin (Accessibility Internet Rally) twice learning about and designing websites for non-profits that were accessible for the blind and visually-impaired…and anyone else who uses adaptive technology…and anyone who was on a low-bandwith connection who wants the option of skipping flashier design components.

I also had the good fortune to take an education course called “Individual Differences” with Dr. Jim Patton during my semester at the University of Texas’s College of Education. A handful of years ago, this class probably would have been called “Special Education” which leads me to…

Notes on language

It is more appropriate and more respectful to refer to someone as a “person with a [disability]” instead of “[disabled] person.” They probably don’t let their disability define them, and we shouldn’t either. And when considering most things, before automatically assuming anything as a deficit, consider: what is normal? FYI, we cover how to differentiate instruction for students with “gifts and talents” as much as we cover how to adapt for students on the Autism spectrum or who have some hearing loss or those students who identify with the Deaf culture. (If you spent part or all of your K-12 education bored, more attention to individual differences or “universal design” may have helped.)

Bonnie Consolo is a mother with a great sense of humor, who lives without arms; she is not an “armless woman.”

Additionally, thinking about something like ADA building code laws, consider the difference between:

  • A person in a wheelchair is handicapped.
  • The person’s environment is what handicaps a person in a wheelchair.

(Are you disabled because you’re a biker, or does your environment handicap you based on your choice of transportation?)

Observation Opportunity

As part of the Individual Differences class, we had to take a tour of the Assistive & Instructional Technology Lab on campus in Austin. Although not all of us can go undercover as a person of advanced age like Patricia Moore did for years to gain the insight and empathy to champion universal design, we can do much to observe and learn about current technologies and opportunities in the area. The AT Lab is set up with rooms meant to evoke a home, a workplace, a classroom, and an early-childhood setting. One of the first things they have you do is tie a rubberband around your fingers to test out the silverware.

One thing that struck me was how much of the technology was not what we would consider “high-tech,” and I think that’s an instructive way to redefine and think about innovating. It doesn’t have to be a computer-powered gadget. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a wider grip or a magnifying glass.

I would guess you could call them and arrange a tour even if you aren’t a UT student. If you can’t make it, their webpage has photos of and descriptions of many of the technologies they feature at the lab.

Doing it is hard

Designing with the universal design approach is hard. I have to admit I don’t have any experience getting a product to ship, so I don’t know of all the hurdles in the way. (Maybe that’s a good thing for now. I can bump up against them when I get there and not design with them in mind as blocks.) The same is true of designing sustainably and for usability and for social impact.

We’re spending a few more weeks synthesizing positions and opinions to begin to form (or reform) our philosophy about design and our role as designers. First we have to talk the talk. Then throughout the next years, we have to prove that we can also walk the walk.