The concept of Universal Design has been around for decades. The basic idea is to make the environment and things in the environment accessible to all types of people regardless of physicality. Some examples are access ramps and curb cuts, automatic doors, and closed captioning. Universal Design is essentially problem solving where the goal is to make something usable for as diverse and wide of a population as possible.
If you consider each segment (disability category) of the population to be a factor to be accommodated, the more diverse the population, the more limiting factors to be considered. Therefore, the problem gets harder to solve the more universal the design becomes. The opposite of this situation is Individual Design where the problem has to be solved for only one person, typically making it a simpler problem to tackle.
An unfortunate truth of real world problem solving is that difficult problems are less likely to get solved. Much of the built environment and the things in it have not been designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind because it is easier to ignore this population. The result is a host of access problems and limited innovation for people with disabilities.
Generally speaking, when many of these problems are investigated, designers and engineers do not readily see feasible solutions in terms of Universal Design. Particularly when it comes to creativity and innovation. It is difficult to come up with an innovative product that will meet the requirements of Universal Design due to the many variables involved. The natural result is for new ideas and creations to be curtailed due to the high bar of creating something that meets the criteria of Universal Design. It becomes an all or nothing proposition where the path of least resistance points toward doing nothing.
For example, electric scooter rideshares are the latest trend in personal mobility. There are literally millions of these devices around the world. Very few (if any) of these devices are accessible to people with disabilities. The prospect of making scooter rideshares conform to the principles of Universal Design seems too hard to accomplish in a practical and economic manner due to wide varieties of disabilities to consider. Therefore, the simplest solution is to not make any of them accessible. Current scooter rideshares are only designed to be used by the able-bodied population. The unintended effect of the goal of Universal Design is to curtain innovation when solutions are not readily available.
A second issue is that many times products (environments or experiences) that are made for everyone are also not desirable by many due to the very nature of their universal accessibility. It is difficult to design a cutting edge or innovative product that conforms to universal access. Therefore, universal products tend to be rather plain and utilitarian. In order to make everyone happy, nobody is happy.
A third issue is to recognize that designers and engineers solve problems based on their understanding of the problem. Most of these people are not intimately familiar with the lives of people with disabilities. Many times, solutions are created based on bias and stereotypes. It is easier for designers to create innovations for people with less involved disabilities. In other words, the more “able-bodied” the person, the smaller the familiarity gap, and the easier it is for the designer to come up with a solution. Simply stated, it is easier for able-bodied designers to create accessibility for single leg amputees who walk with a prosthesis than for wheelchair users. Therefore, it makes sense find a solution for amputees first, then move on to wheelchair users.
Fourth, innovative solutions are the outgrowth of deep understanding. It may take some time gaining real world experience at the beginning of the Accessibility Continuum to be able to come up with solutions towards the end of the Accessibility Continuum. Incremental Universal Design is the process of moving along the Accessibility Continuum toward the goal of full access.
The solution is not to give up on striving for vision of Universal Design, but to realize that accessibility can exist on a continuum. The Accessibility Continuum illustrates that accessibility is not a single state. There can be a sequence of stages of accessibility that combine. The end stage is to achieve the effect of Universal Design. But it may have to be accomplished in an incremental or step-by-step manner. Therefore, non-universal access solutions can be seen as part of the Accessibility Continuum rather than as failures.
Getting back to the scooter rideshare example. At this juncture, there is not enough experience with the workings of scooter rideshares to determine how accessible scooters would be designed and operate in a safe and practical manner. The physical ability gap from an able-bodied person to a wheelchair user riding a scooter seems to be too large to bridge at this point in time. But the gap from able-bodied to walking disability is not so far. For example, outfitting some scooters with seats would make them more accessible to some people with disabilities. While it would not meet the criteria of Universal Design, more people would be able to use them. The next increment might be to make them more stable for people with balance impairments. There could be height adjustments to accommodate little people. After having of experience with working with these populations, the solution for wheelchair users might become apparent. Universal Design could be looked at like a slippery slope where each increment of accessibility makes successive accessibility more likely to be achieved by the knowledge and experience gained.
Outlining the process of Incremental Universal Design is intended to encourage designers, engineers, and manufacturers to innovate and look for accessibility improvements whenever and wherever possible. To not be discouraged that they do not have the “full solution”. To not be afraid of being asked the question “but what about …., how will they be able to use it?” Not having a Universal Design solution should not be seen as failure. The implementation of Incremental Universal Design is one of the pathways to full access and should be recognized as such.
The following is an example of how Incremental Universal Design has been (unknowingly) applied to adaptive skiing.
Increment #1 – Able-Bodied Adaptation = boots, skis, poles.
Increment #2 – Single Leg Amp Adaptation = Outriggers instead of poles.
Increment #3 – Double Amp, Para Adaptation = Monoski to allow fo sitting.
Increment #4 – Low Level Quad Adaptation = Bi-ski for more stability.
Increment #5 – High Level Quad Adaptation = Tetraski for mouth control.
While it took many years for adaptive skiing to achieve the Accessibility Continuum, the results are very impressive. Not only has the absolute skiing performance of the most advanced skiers reached new heights, the scope of diverse people with disabilities able to ski has broadened considerably.
The Tetraski is the only device that is universally accessible to all categories of skier from high quad to able-bodied, but as a practical matter, each category of skier will gravitate towards the option geared to their specific strengths and weaknesses. In alpine skiing, the Accessibility Continuum means that people of diverse abilities get to ski in some manner. The process that achieved this result was Incremental Universal Design.