Seminar 1

Understanding universal design, April 19th 2013

Graphicking by Stephen Lee Hodgkins

Universally design social policy: when disability disappears?
Jerome Bickenbach, Department of Health Sciences & Health Policy, University of Lucerne, Switzerland

In 1989, US sociologist and disability rights advocate Irving Zola called for a ‘universalized disability policy’ in which policy targeting the needs and circumstances of persons with disabilities – policy focusing on disability rights – is slowly replaced by policy targeting all citizens – policy focusing on human rights. This was particularly shocking for those disability scholars committed to identity politics and other political frameworks that built their political activism on the persistence of social, economic and political inequalities experienced by ‘marginalised minorities’. Zola’s insight, however, if developed and explained in terms of analogues of the well-known principles of Universal Design, is a powerful call for reform with revolutionary consequences for how most societies structure and delivery their social services. In this paper I review and evaluate the legal and policy feasibility of universalization, focusing on what might be provocatively called the ‘social disappearance of disability’.

Situating universal design: architecture, users, and uses
Paul Jones, Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, University of Liverpool, UK

Debates centring on Universal Design (UD) can contribute much to understandings of the relationship between architecture and the social basis of disability. This article interrogates some of the underlying theoretical principles of UD in light of the concept of ideal-types as developed by Max Weber. The suggestion is that the analytical precision afforded by the ideal-typical construct has much potential to support theoretically engaged, empirically grounded research that can sharpen key concepts of ‘universalism’ and ‘function’, both of which have an ambivalent status in UD. Against this broad backcloth, the article assesses the Museum of Liverpool, which National Museums Liverpool claim is ‘the largest newly built national museum in Britain for more than a century’. Although satisfying relevant accessibility standards, some of the spaces of the building have a highly problematic status in practice, with access in particular proving disruptive for many users. Using this case study to tease out how some wider imperatives from within professional architectural practice can militate against meaningfully user-centred design, the article aims to contribute to knowledge of the implications of professional architects’ narrow understandings of users’ bodies and capacities (Imrie, 2002). In so doing, the paper cautions against positing an asocial notion of either architect or user.

About the nature of design in universal design
Ann Heylighen, KU Leuven, Department of Architecture, Urbanism & Planning, Leuven, Belgium

A few years ago, a study was conducted about whether and how universal design could be integrated structurally and sustainably in all architecture programs offered in Flanders. The study suggested that the concept as such is not widely accepted and that some of its ideas are received rather skeptically. In an attempt to understand where this skepticism comes from, this article sets out to confront the concept of universal design with prevailing notions and practices of design. On the one hand, I examine how universal design can be situated relative to design in general; on the other hand, I explore whether elements in the nature of design can help one to explain the skepticism about universal design. To this end, I revisit writings about how design has been and is being understood—as a cognitive process, a situated process, and a social process—and confront these with the concept and ideas of universal design. I substantiate my confrontation with ethnographic material about real-world design processes in architectural practice collected retrospectively or in-real time. Issues that will be addressed include the ambiguity in how universal design is framed and presented (as an attitude of designers or a normative design domain, as a process or the specification of a product), the critique that universal design is utopian versus the indeterminateness inherent to design, and the distance between designer intent and user experience. While the article focuses on (universal) design in architecture, the analysis may be relevant for other design domains as well.

Has universal design forgotten singular bodies? Some reflections concerning accessibility
Myriam Winance, CERMES3, INSERM, Villejuif, France

Since the 1980’s the two issues of accessibility and universal design have become central in the field of disability. Accessibility has propagated the idea that society has to be “barriers free” for disabled people. Through the universal design movement, this idea was extended to everybody: spaces, buildings, objects, and services have to be conceived in order to be usable by all and everyone whatever her/his characteristics. Universal design is based on the hypothesis that it is possible to conceive a space usable by a variety of users. In other terms, it is possible to inscribe the variety of uses and of users into one object, one space, one building used be all. The universalisation process leads to a material uniqueness that erases singular bodies and the ways they interact with their environment. Hence, it may exclude some people from use and social participation. In my paper, I would like to demonstrate this in focusing on accessibility. I will base my analysis on an enquiry on wheelchair users. I will show that accessibility, in terms of adaptation of the physical and human environment, is essential because those adaptations are resources on which people can learn to act. But I also show that the shift from possibility to effective action stems from a singular process of adaptation that transforms individuals and their physical and social spaces. To get access to, people have to settle practical arrangements that singularise their environment, their space, and their objects. I will argue that accessibility or universal use cannot be achieved through a process including “all differences” into one “material uniqueness”. Rather, it can be achieved through a process of singularisation.

DeafSpace and the principles of universal design
Gill Harold and Claire Edwards, School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork, Ireland

DeafSpace is an architectural paradigm that focuses on the creation of visuo-centric spaces through principles such as awareness of sensory reach, lighting, colour and acoustics. The paradigm is emerging through ongoing work being conducted at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., described as the “world’s premier higher education institution serving deaf and hard of hearing people”. DeafSpace as a set of principles has already influenced the construction of new spaces such as the Sorensen Language and Communication Centre at Gallaudet and the Deaf Village in Dublin, Ireland. In this paper, we examine the epistemic origins of DeafSpace as a design concept, and in light of criticisms that have been levied against the concept of Universal Design (see for example Imrie, 2012), ask whether DeafSpace is about more than a purely technical response to the built environment for D/deaf people. In so doing, we seek to assess and situate DeafSpace in relation to Universal Design principles, and ask whether DeafSpace is to be read as an extension of the Universal Design orthodoxy (about creating products and/or environments that are accessible for all), or whether it reflects the creation of alternative, particularist spaces borne out of the visuo-gestual ontology associated with Deaf ways of being.

Universal design and rehabilitation: developing a knowledge base for citizenship and participation
Inger Marie Lid, Oslo and Akershus University College, Norway

The UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) notes that there is a great need for much more research and education on universal design (UD), in relation to the form of the material environment, including products and services. The convention also emphasizes the importance of raising awareness about UD, in contributing to the rights and dignity for persons with disabilities as equal citizens. In this paper, I will discuss the significance of UD as an object/subject of interdisciplinary research and application, by focusing on the interrelationships between rehabilitation and planning and building professions, and their respective approaches to, and understandings of, UD. The discussion draws on a project where students from engineering and occupational therapy are working together to develop a deeper, interdisciplinary, understanding of, and approaches to, UD. I will focus on the epistemological and methodological assumptions, implications and challenges relating to the engagements between engineers and occupational therapists in seeking to develop UD. Two approaches towards the development of UD illuminates the discussion; working in a laboratory and in an auditory. The paper addresses what the role of theory, tacit knowledge and technology is in the process? Additionally, it considers what are the ethical implications students and scholars should be aware of?

Parallels and problems of normalization in rehabilitation and universal design
Barbara Gibson, Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto, and Bloorview Research Institute at the Holland Kids rehabilitation Hospital, Toronto, Canada

In this paper, I will explore the parallels between Universal Design (UD) and dominant rehabilitation discourses that take for granted autonomy and independence as essential human goods. Both UD and rehabilitation focus on homogenizing bodies through the pursuit of normal function, normal bodies, and (in children’s rehabilitation) normal development. Normal in all of these instances focuses on techniques and technologies to reduce dependence on others and/or ameliorate alternative ways of moving and being in the world. Drawing from research that explores the intersection of bodies, places and technologies with disabled children, I will examine how the dominance of independence in rehabilitation and UD risks reproducing the normative body and legitimated forms of mobility, and in so doing perpetuates the ‘othering’ of difference.