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Universal Design

By Sherette Almandoz
Interior Design Consultant

I sit in my pew peacefully as I take in the morning Mass, until my eye catches the struggle of one of the lay ministers. Dressed quite nicely, and always eager, she mounts the stairs to ascend the altar. Though her mind is keen and willing, her age tellingly limits her movements. No railing exists to aid her steps, and her legs fight to make it to the top.

This scene has probably taken place in many other churches, and sadly many other establishments, both locally and abroad. This issue of hindered mobility is just one of the common limitations that the elderly, and persons who are abled differently, face on a daily basis. Memory, hearing, and vision impairments are noted to be quite widespread as well. Facing such limitations in the built environment can be challenging. Thankfully, the concept of Universal Design stands to address these issues.

What is Universal Design exactly?

Universal Design is defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”- (Center for Universal Design). Using such an approach in the creation of built environments takes into consideration the reality that our human race is amazingly varied, and so the accommodation of a very wide range of human characteristics would need to be researched.

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it” (HE Luccock). We can see these words being played out through the diverse team of architects, engineers, industrial designers, and environmental design researchers who all came together to develop the seven principles of Universal Design. Such a varied team would have undoubtedly taken into account various human performance characteristics that would need to be accommodated. It is recommended therefore that these principles be followed, in order to properly evaluate and guide the design process:

  1. Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  1. Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  1. Simple and Intuitive Use

The design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language proficiency, or education level.

  1. Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions, or the user’s sensory abilities.

  1. Tolerance for Error

The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  1. Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue.

  1. Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Census data from the Central Statistical Office of Trinidad & Tobago reveals that there will soon be more people 65 years and older than there will be primary school children.  The mobility issue referred to earlier occurred in a church—housing and transportation needs are also of great concern, and need to be properly addressed to ensure that more accessible communities are created and improved to meet the needs of our ageing population. Ageing affects everyone differently, and so the use of Universal Design principles certainly can aid us in finding ideal solutions that would help us better adapt as a nation.

Not only is our ageing population on the increase, but within recent times our immigrant population has also significantly grown. This is a testament to our expanding diversity as a country. Such changes in our local demographics make it essential to create Universal Design solutions to respond to this reality of a population that continues to evolve. As mentioned earlier, our human race is amazingly varied, and so persons of different backgrounds and cultures will undoubtedly bring with them different needs and expectations.

As stated by many architects, designers, and likeminded individuals, “Universal Design is simply good design”. Trinidad and Tobago is known for its wealth of creativity coursing throughout the twin islands. Let us, therefore, embrace this concept of Universal Design as one that we will consider for both present and future generations, as we try to find innovative solutions to the limitations that face our rapidly ageing and ever-changing multicultural populace.