Vol. 19 No. 1

by George A. Covington

The concept of Universal Design is a Trojan Horse that will allow people with disabilities past the gates of prejudice and fear. By understanding Universal Design from a disability perspective, it is also a concept that can broad-en domestic markets and aid this country in global competition.

The goal of Universal Design is to create a product, physical place or service that can be used by the widest range of individuals possible. Whether your pro-duct is a book, a bagel or a bowling alley - it is good business to make it available to the broadest possible range of potential customers. If your product, place or service can be used independently by both an individual who is eight years old and a person who is eighty years old, you are close to reaching the goal of Universal Design. Within this eight to eighty range most, but not all, disabled people will fit. Universal Design is intended to be inclusive not exclusive, The conceptís inclusive nature allows people with disabilities to fit within the Trojan Horse.

Why do 50 million Americans need a Trojan Horse? Because designers are people and people fear us. In 1991 a Louis Harris Poll showed that 58% of able-bodied persons interviewed felt embarrassed and uncomfortable in the presence of a person with a disability and 47% felt actual fear. If you fear us, how can you design for us? To get past the fear you must understand that we are not one mass of creatures called "the disabled". Designers must understand that disabled people are - just like everyone else - except we have a disability. Our individual disability becomes a handicap only when we encounter a barrier. Designers, not God, created most of the barriers we face. Ramping a building is easier than ramping the human heart and mind. We canít change God, but we sure can change designers by destroying the fear.

To get past the fear, you have to get past the negative images the stereotypes, and the myths. It will help if you consider a few facts and take some simple advice. The first fact is: People with disabilities can lie, cheat, and steal just like able-bodied people. Disabled people can be fools, fakes, and frauds just like able-bodied people. If you cannot accept these statements, you cannot truly accept the concept that disabled people are just like everyone else, except they have a disability.

Some of us with disabilities are charming, witty, and highly intelligent; some of us are not. The disability didnít determine which of us would be sexy and which of us would be sexist. A disability gives us a different perspective, not a different personality. Some of us get married, have children, and live happily ever after; or some of us get divorced (not necessarily in that order). Some of us never leave home, most of us do. Some of us have reached a comfort level that allows us to debate semantics and determine that the words "cripple" and "handicapped" are no longer acceptable. Others are still debating whether "disabled people" should be replaced with "people with disabilities." This latter debate is generally restricted to the disabled gurus living inside the Washington, D. C. beltway. Yes, some of us are disabled gurus, or gurus with disabilities, if you choose. Many of us feel that we are not "visually challenged," "physically challenged," or, if youíre short "vertically challenged." When the obstacles are removed so are the "challenges."

If designers will stop creating a world of barriers that constantly "challenge" us, we poor crips will stop "inspiring" you with how we manage to overcome the challenge of bad designs. We are as different and diverse as everyone else in the world. We simply have a disability.

The second fact is: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Most designers have approached disability issues with the best of intentions, but good intentions are not enough.

Too often in the past, able-bodied individuals and groups came up with projects and products that they knew "would be great for handicapped people." They never bothered to ask us for input. Their enthusiasm was great, but their idea or product was a disaster. They were more interested in a "warm and fuzzy" concept than they were in a substantive idea. Often their feelings were hurt when we threw the cold water of reality on what had been the warm glow of poorly directed good intentions. It is too late to ask for our input after the concrete has been poured and the last nail driven. Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted on projects for disabled people. Able-bodied people must learn to ask us if we need it, want it, or can afford it. Ask us, then listen, then design.

And donít listen to just one of us. Most designers I know would seek input from as many potential consumers as possible before finishing a design and taking it to market. Please avoid the "I have this disabled friend" syndrome. It sometimes appears that everyone in the design business has one disabled person who can provide all necessary knowledge on all aspects of disability.

This is like saying :they all look alike to me". Well, look again. The latest government figures show there are 50 million of us and the numbers are growing as the population ages. As America grays, so does its purses and pocketbooks.

As the baby boomers hit the brick wall of fifty, many are not seeing, hearing or moving as well as they did in their youth. Because of the stigma attached to the term disabled, these newcomers will seldom discuss their problems. Because they have believed the negative images, myths and stereotypes about "the disabled", they are horrified that they might be one of us.

These newcomers to the fringes of disability bring with them the fear of "the disabled". Often, if the problem is severe, these individuals will retreat within the safety of their homes and seldom venture out. They will choose being a hermit over the stigma of being disabled. The Trojan Horse of Universal Design can get through the walls these people have erected from myths and stereotypes.

How? - By designing something for as broad a market as possible, that design is no longer "special" and no longer identifies the user as different and apart from everyone else. I have seen situations where museums would place a pile of attractive large print brochures next to a "regular" small print brochure. If they placed a sign "for the handicapped" by them, the stack would stay untouched until it turned moldy. Take away any designation of the two stacks and you can watch the "regular" stack turn old and gray. Why do so many able-bodied folks use those things designed for us when they arenít aware of that fact? Because they want the convenience of an accessibly designed creation without the perceived stigma.

Universal Design is, at its best, seamless and invisible. You shouldnít look at something and say "thatís designed for ..." Universal Design does not mean that all people will be able to use the end product. Some severely disabled individuals will need specific modification for use. With Universal Design, fewer and less costly modifications will be needed.

The Trojan Horse of Universal Design will allow these newcomers to use products, places and services they might otherwise avoid.

George A. Covington is the former Special Assistant for Disability Policy to the Vice President of the United States. He is the former co-chair of the Universal Design Task Force for the Presidentís Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and currently serves on itís Communications Committee. Born legally blind, he first achieved national attention for his work in using photography as an accessibility tool.