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  • Dr. Rebecca Langbein

NDEAM Accessibility Series - Part 5: An Introduction to Using Universal Design to Foster Inclusion

There is no question that the workplace has changed a lot in the last few years – and in ways that most of us likely never anticipated! We’ve all become accustomed to Zoom meetings, four-legged furry colleagues who bark during presentations, and that awkward boundary between the “workday” and “real life”.

Though it wasn’t an easy transition for everyone, as a Universal and Inclusive Design Consultant, I believe there is a silver lining here. We have all realized our power to be creative and adapt our environments to make them work better for us. We’ve learned how to repurpose Amazon boxes into laptop stands, use bookshelves to create “walls” for a living room office, and identified just the right type of focus music to drown out our noisy family carrying on in the background.


This idea of making our environments work better is a central principle in the world of universal design. The intention of universal design is to create products, programs, and spaces that are usable by a wide variety of people; thus, creating a society that enables all people to participate equitably. Universal design strives to make it easy for people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and disability statuses to thrive in the world around them. Design that is universal enhances comfort, understanding, wellness, social integration, and cultural appropriateness, along with a number of other aims as well. But what does this actually look like? Consider the following examples:

  • Remember the last time you were at the grocery store, pushing a really heavy cart out to your car? Well, the automatic sliding door probably made that task quite a bit easier than it would have been if you’d had to push a door open or use a door handle. If you’ve ever used a stroller in a public place, you are likely familiar with the convenience of these doors as well!

Woman in wheelchair moving through a cross-walk
  • Curb cuts are one of the most ubiquitous universal design features. It’s a lot easier and safer for everyone –runners, children on scooters, people with mobility devices -- to navigate sidewalks that gently slope down at a crossing, as opposed to those that abruptly drop off into the street.

  • Direction signs and maps that have numbers, colors, and images offer a variety of ways to remember the information that is being displayed. Even if you don’t speak the language where you are, you can still gather the information that you need when it is presented in such a flexible manner.

  • If you’ve ever been in a dirty public restroom, I bet you weren’t too keen on touching the faucet or toilet. Motion-sensor appliances that can be activated with just the wave of a hand, elbow, or fist allow people with decreased finger dexterity to use such products while also making for a far more sanitary bathroom space.

So, you see, you’ve already begun to experience universal design in action. And I’ll bet you didn’t even realize it! And that is precisely the beauty of universal design. If implemented correctly, universal design creates spaces that work simply, intuitively, and flexibly for a wide variety of people.

Applying this concept specifically to the workplace, we can imagine a world in which diverse groups of people can learn and work collaboratively, without special accommodations for people with disabilities or of different ages or backgrounds. A universally designed workspace does not make anyone feel “othered” and does not create office spaces that are “separate but equal” for disabled and non-disabled employees. A universally designed workspace is one in which…

  • People with asthma can opt to use an elevator on a day they are having trouble breathing

  • A person who uses a wheelchair can roll up to a lowered countertop in the cafeteria to pay for their lunch

Woman standing at an adjustable desk looking at computer screen
  • A person who is extremely tall can adjust a desk so that they don’t have to slump down and hurt their back while working

  • An employee visiting the office from a site in another country and who does not speak the language can find their way around to meetings and events

A workspace that is universally designed makes all employees more effective in their jobs and makes the company itself more attractive to diverse jobseekers who can bring varied perspectives and expertise to the table. Such a workspace is also flexible and adaptable.

Now, think about your workspace. Does it make it easier for you to do your jobs? Are there physical barriers that seem to complicate things, slow you down, or make you unsafe? Does the place you work welcome people of all ages, disability statuses, and cultural backgrounds?

Not satisfied with any of your answers? That’s ok. You’re not alone and it’s an excellent place to start. One great thing about universal design is that it is innovative, personalized, and variable. So, creating a universally designed workplace doesn’t have to require a brand-new building or expensive upgrades. It can simply mean making small but meaningful adaptations to everyday tasks and areas that make it easier or more comfortable for employees to do what they have to. And fortunately, we’ve all learned how to flex our adaptive and creative muscles in the past few years. Are you ready to use yours and being your universal design journey?

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