Designing for everyone

The 20th century brought about major social changes with respect to civil and human rights. Medical advances during this period meant that the likelihood of surviving an injury or illness was far greater. People began to live longer and the average life expectancy of people with severe impairments increased. Driven in part by factors such as the large number of Second World War soldiers returning home with disabling injuries, the rights and needs of older people and people with disabilities were brought to the forefront. Governments responded with the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation.

As new laws served to promote social inclusion and prevent discrimination, pressure was placed on the design industry to meet the demands of creating accessible and usable products, services and environments. The social movements gathered momentum which resulted in the design industry responding with targeted efforts. Concepts such as barrier-free design, which aspired to remove barriers for disabled people from the built environment, appeared.

The more generalised concept of accessible design emerged in the 1970s and promoted the incorporation of accessible solutions into the general design of products, services and environments. In the 1980s the concept of the social model of disability also emerged. The social model of disability sees the issue of “disability” as a socially created problem and a matter of the full integration of individuals into society. In this model, disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, many of which are created by the social environment. Hence, the management of the problem requires social action and is the collective responsibility of society at large to make the environmental modifications necessary for the full participation of people with disabilities in all areas of social life. The issue is both cultural and ideological, requiring individual, community, and large-scale social change. From this perspective, equal access for someone with an impairment/disability is a human rights issue of major concern.

It is easy to see how design in regard to public and private spaces is essential in enabling accessible communities.


There are a number of different concepts that have emerged along the same premise. They include “Universal Design”, “Design for All”, and “Age-Friendly Cities”.

Universal Design

A Universal Design approach aims to provide a design that takes into account these physical, behavioural, and other, factors. It appreciates that at some point, during some activity, every person experiences some form of limitation in ability. However, it should be added that a hypothetical person who does not experience a disability (in the widest definition of the word) during his or her lifetime will also benefit, at the very least from the positive user experience of simple and intuitive design. Firstly, Universal Design is not only applicable to the needs of people with disabilities, but to everyone, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. Secondly, Universal Design is not a list of specifications; it is an approach to design that considers the varied abilities of users.

Design for All

Design for All is design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality. This holistic and innovative approach constitutes a creative and ethical challenge for all planners, designers, entrepreneurs, administrators and political leaders.
Design for All aims to enable all people to have equal opportunities to participate in every aspect of society. To achieve this, the built environment, everyday objects, services, culture and information – in short, everything that is designed and made by people to be used by people – must be accessible, convenient for everyone in society to use and responsive to evolving human diversity.
The practice of Design for All makes conscious use of the analysis of human needs and aspirations and requires the involvement of end users at every stage in the design process.

Age-Friendly Cities

In an age-friendly city, policies, services, settings and structures support and enable people to age actively by:
• recognizing the wide range of capacities and resources among older people;
• anticipating and responding flexibly to ageing-related needs and preferences;
• respecting their decisions and lifestyle choices;
• protecting those who are most vulnerable; and
• promoting their inclusion in and contribution to all areas of community life.

Because active ageing is a lifelong process, an age-friendly city is not just “elderly friendly”. Barrier-free buildings and streets enhance the mobility and independence of people with disabilities, young as well as old. Secure neighbourhoods allow children, younger women and older people to venture outside in confidence to participate in physically active leisure and in social activities.

Important things to note

No person operates with full capability for every activity for the duration of his or her lifetime. Accessibility or usability can be affected by, for example, a medical injury or condition (temporary, long-term or permanent), an unfamiliarity with a product or environment, a lack of understanding (e.g. In a foreign country), a physical attribute (e.g. Height, size), and so on.

These ideas and concepts need to be adopted by designers at all levels. From city planners, to architects, to designers of furniture and even clothing! Equal rights and disability legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Accessible design standards need to promote compliance with this legislation by providing designers with specifications and minimum requirements which must be adhered to. The important thing to consider is to adopt a user- or person-centred approach to designing. This requires an awareness and appreciation of the diverse and changing abilities of people.

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams is the Content Developer and Social Media Administration for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.

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    Governments responded with the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation.