Universal Design: The Next Step in the Equal-Access City?

The mechanics of universal design.  Source: fujixerox.com

The mechanics of universal design. Source: fujixerox.com

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted on July 26, 1990. This act proscribed a number of incremental changes to cities. Because of the act, urban infrastructure has been modified. Public transportation, telecommunications, and the built form have been updated to better accommodate all users. These changes have improved the daily lives of the disabled Americans in our communities as they have increased access to jobs and public life.

But have we done enough? Moving around the city, there are still many obstacles that may not be readily noticeable to the abled body. A crack in the sidewalk can be a tremendous hurdle to a person who requires a wheelchair. Silent electric cars can be hazardous as persons with no visual ability negotiate across streets. A lack of station signage on a busy train can render a city commute all the more difficult for someone with a loss of hearing.

What more can we accomplish? A concept called “universal design” can make our cities not just more accessible for those with limited abilities, but much more livable for all in our communities. Universal design makes infrastructure safer, easier, and more convenient for all abilities. According to UniversalDesign.com, the concept “takes into account the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes.” In this way, infrastructure can be designed to be more functional and user-friendly for everybody.

Instead of placing ramps away from the main flows of human movement, sloped access is central in universally designed entrances, thus welcoming all users. Transportation platforms are designed so that everyone can enter directly onto a train or bus, speeding up boarding for all without the need for a slow and/or inconvenient ramp. Street crossings are designed to provide for groups of school children and elderly shoppers to cross at their own pace without danger from the hurried driver.

Due to the increased costs of retrofitting infrastructure, some may argue against universal design. However, improving access for everyone produces economic as well as social benefits. Building beyond the requirements of existing standards helps business avoid costs of reconfiguration; future surpluses can be used to grow business rather than to comply with expanding legal requirements. Furthermore, embracing all customers is good for business’ bottom line.

Universal design should be the next step in the progression of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act should be expanded to require that cities be made accessible universally. One should not have to second-guess how they are going to get to work or school that day because of an obstacle in their travel. One should not be flustered because the restaurant or store their friend recommended to them cannot accommodate their abilities. You should be able to go about your daily life without ever having to experience the duress of not being able to access your own city.

Join us this Wednesday, March 18, at 12 noon in the Gallery 400 Lecture Room at 400 South Peoria, to hear a panel speak on this topic in Great Cities Institute’s event, “Equal-Access City? 25 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act”, and engage in the conversation on this important topic.

About the Author:
Jackson Morsey, GCI Economic Development Planner: Primarily working within GCI’s Neighborhoods Initiative, Jackson works in collaboration with community-based organizations, university faculty, and staff to provide technical assistance and services for community and economic development projects.