(Mis)Understanding Universal Design

In 1941, Ronald L. Mace was born in New Jersey, USA. Around 1950, Mace contracted polio, which luckily did not prevent him from graduating with a BA in Architecture from the School of Design of North Carolina State University in 1966. After practicing architecture until 1970, he focused all his efforts into producing a building code for the USA that actually took into account the accessibility of the disabled, because, as a wheelchair user, he had first-hand experience of the problems and deficiencies. Fortunately, In the United Kingdom, another architect, Selwyn Goldsmith, had already initiated this process in 1963 by publishing the book “Designing for the Disabled”. This book was so successful that Goldsmith had to write many more revised and updated editions in 1967, 1976 and 1997. Mace was able to make the best out of the build-up of awareness for the rights of people with disabilities that Goldsmith had stirred up with his first two editions, and by 1973 Mace’s suggestions had actually managed to become North Carolina law.

In 1989, in parallel to a long and successful career of passing many disabled-friendly Acts as federal laws (e.g. Federal Rehabilitation, Fair Housing Amendments, Americans with Disabilities), Mace used federal funds from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) and established, at North Carolina State University’s School of Design, the “Center for Accessible Housing”, which later changed its name to the “Center for Universal Design”. It was there that a team of ten “Universal Design” advocates met twenty years ago, in 1997, to finalise the current version of the seven famous “Principles of Universal Design”. Even though this center has not been active recently due to funding challenges, its legacy is still actively affecting a domain outside Architecture: Education.

If the last two paragraphs kept your interest, you will probably have noticed that the concept Mace came up with was all about ascertaining that people with disabilities would be able to use the same products and facilities as everyone else. It had nothing to do with creating a global solution to fit all of humanity. This misunderstanding, however, was caused by the misinterpretation (either by accident or on purpose) of a report on UD published in 1998 by three UD advocates – including Mace.

In this report (Story et al., 1998), which was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the authors started by stating that “every individual is unique” and “as a group the human species is quite diverse”. They then continued by speculating that with UD “it is possible to design a product or an environment to suit a broad range of users, including children, older adults, people with disabilities, people of atypical size or shape, people who are ill or injured, and people inconvenienced by circumstance”. They then added that UD is meant to be “the design of products and environments […] usable to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages and abilities”, and that UD “respects human diversity and promotes inclusion of all people in all activities of life”. Finally, they concluded by stating that “it is unlikely that any product or environment could ever be used by everyone under all conditions” and that “it may be more appropriate to consider universal design a process, rather than an achievement”.

It was about that time when David Rose, the co-founder of CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), who had previously worked with children with disabilities (Blanck, 1994), collaborated with ERIC by participating in the “Developer Working Group on Universal Design of Curriculum” in 1998 (Francik, 1999), and was thus introduced to the idea of UD. Rose eventually consulted on the paper (Orkwis and McLane, 1998) that gave birth to Universal Design for Curriculum Access (UDCA), which quickly became the Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Unlike plain UD, this mix of UD with Education claimed that it wanted to, somehow, address the needs of all students – not just the ones with registered disabilities. From that point onwards, CAST (Rose, 2000) became the strongest supporter and evangelist of UDL – yet this was only part of the equation.

In 1999, Stan Shaw of University of Connecticut realised that UD sounded promising, so he posted a project suggesting the creation of an educational system based on UD specifically for students with disabilities. A few grant performance reports later, a paper (Scott et al., 2003) introduced to the world Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). Even though UDL has gained more supporters over the years in comparison (based on the number of citations), UDI can still be seen mentioned in papers – sometimes interchangeably with UDL. In addition to UConn, the University of Washington is also a big fan of this project, mainly sticking to its true meaning by using it to promote inclusion for people with disabilities

Even though UD was all about being inclusive regarding disabled individuals, UDL aspired from the beginning to be even more than that, subconsciously aiming to provide instructors with guidelines on how to build the ultimate toolbox in order to successfully teach all their students at once. However, I beg to differ – and others agree.

When UD was once considered as a “catchy” phrase to be added into the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) standards, an online argument took place in the forums of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which can still be seen today. Eric Hansen, a Research Scientist for ETS – the non-profit behind the GRE and TOEFL tests, said: “I think that the term ‘Universal Design’ is an oxymoron […] One word contradicts another […] The “universal” in this context says that the design process will work for everyone. Yet this is impossible, because no design can satisfy what is essentially an infinite number of constraints”, to which the original commenter responded: “While I agree with you (you convinced me that is) that Universal Design is not the appropriate term for what we do […] I think naming one thing after another more powerful thing (the difference being esoteric for most people) is a marketing trick many people have used before us”. Finally, to settle the argument, one of the ten original UD advocates, Gregg Vanderheiden, commented: “I don’t think anyone authorized us to work on guidelines for people who do not have disabilities […] if the guidelines are to be picked up and used by others to ensure access to the web by people with disabilities, they need to keep their disability focus”.

As one can expect, the term UD has since popped up again – many times, as a synonym to “good design”, with various authors trying to take advantage of its vagueness to somehow justify the assertions of their incongruous designs. Due to the exaggerated conspicuousness of the aforementioned popularised utopian overpromises, educational literature is still (Dean et al., 2017) trying to use UDL as a “catch all” term for reaching students of all competencies with a singular, almost magical, approach, without aiming to actually adjust its methods to the needs of each and every individual. Even though Mace’s buildings could not somehow magically “reshape” to satisfy each user, with the help of technology, we, the teachers, can indeed adapt to each student, instead of asking them to forcefully conform to us just because we tried to create a majority approach that we believe fits most. Education should not be democratic, like voting, but personalised, like “pizza toppings”, with the only limitation being what the teacher can provide – which can in turn be resolved by adding more teachers in the mix.

Konstantinos Gkoutzis


Blanck, P.D. (1994). Celebrating communications technology for everyone. Fed. Comm. LJ, 47, pp.186-188.

Dean, T., Lee-Post, A. and Hapke, H. (2017). Universal Design for Learning in teaching large lecture classes. Journal of Marketing Education, 39(1), pp.5-16.

Francik, E. (1999). Telecommunications Problems and Design Strategies for People with Cognitive Disabilities. p68.

Orkwis, R. and McLane, K. (1998). A Curriculum Every Student Can Use: Design Principles for Student Access. ERIC/OSEP Topical Brief.

Rose, D. (2000). Universal design for learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15(4), pp.47-51.

Scott, S.S., Mcguire, J.M. and Shaw, S.F. (2003). Universal design for instruction: A new paradigm for adult instruction in postsecondary education. Remedial and Special Education, 24(6), pp.369-379.

Story, M.F., Mueller, J.L. and Mace, R.L. (1998). The universal design file: Designing for people of all ages and abilities.