Skip to Main Content

Ableism: Universal Design


Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.  - National Disability Authority

Universal Design

Universal Design is usually a checklist to make an environment accessible. However, as Jay Dolmage points out, universal design started off as a verb; it is an action and a world view (2017, p.116). While a list is a good place to start; universal design is a goal with multiple possibilities, multiple processes, and a moving finish line. A checklist doesn't always make you think of the aspects around each part of accessibility. For example, if there are stairs, an easy solution is to make a ramp. However, you also need to consider if the doorway to the building is even accessible.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design are to guide the design of environments, products and communications. They can be used to evaluate designs, guide the design process, and educate both the designers and users.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

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


  • Provide same means of use to all users: identical whenever possible, equivalent when not
  • Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all user
  • Make the design appealing to all users

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities


  • Provide choice in methods of use
  • Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use
  • Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision
  • Provide adaptability to the user's pace

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or concentration level.


  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition
  • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills
  • Arrange information consistent with its importance
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

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


  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information
  • Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings
  • Maximize "legibility" of essential information
  • Differentiate elements in a way that can be described (i.e. make it easy to give instructions or directions)
  • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

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


  • Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated or shielded
  • Provide warnings of hazards and errors
  • Provide fail safe features
  • Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue


  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position
  • Use reasonable operating forces
  • Minimize repetitive actions
  • Minimize sustained physical effort

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility


  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user
  • Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user
  • Accommodate variations in hand and grip size
  • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.




Other Resources

The University of the Fraser Valley is situated on the traditional territory of the Stó:lō peoples. The Stó:lō have an intrinsic relationship with what they refer to as S’olh Temexw (Our Sacred Land), therefore we express our gratitude and respect for the honour of living and working in this territory.

© , University of the Fraser Valley, 33844 King Road, Abbotsford, B.C., Canada V2S 7M8