The application of Universal Design principles for developing countries

The application of Universal Design principles for developing countries


In developing countries such as Kenya, people with disabilities face several challenges in their physical environment, limiting them from fully participating in their educational, social, cultural and professional life. Currently, around 10 per cent of the total world’s population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability. They experience some form of exclusion from basic necessities such as education, employment, health care, social services as well recreational activities. There has been progress in reducing barriers to promote inclusion in the built environment particularly in high income countries, and many of the low and middle income countries have also attempted to adopt accessibility policies. In the world’s affluent countries, implementation of accessibility standards has evolved overtime and they are implemented well through various types of disability systems. These types of disability systems have tended to be beyond the reach of developing countries because of their limited resources as well as the inadequate monitoring and enforcement of these policies. It is time that the application of the universal design principles in developing countries becomes a mandatory requirement for any approval to happen.

Architect Ronald Mace, who had polio as a child and used a wheelchair and a ventilator, started using the term Universal Design (UD) and figuring out how to define it in relation to accessible design. He made the case that UD is neither a new science nor a unique style in any way. It only requires an awareness of need and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. It ranges from inclusive and nondiscriminatory design of products, cars, architecture, and urban environments and infrastructure, all the way to information technology and telecommunications. It is related to accessibility which is the development of products and spaces specifically for people with disabilities and special needs. It seeks social inclusion through design and is based on the idea of the design for the diverse.

The UD principles are; equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort and size and space for approach and use.

Universal Design takes on a different meaning depending on the economic development of a country. These principles only serve as a guideline to designing universally and the practice of design involves more than consideration for usability so designers must also incorporate other considerations such as economic, engineering, cultural, gender and environmental concerns in their design process. One of the arguments against UD for developing countries is that it is too expensive to practice and that designers have other issues to grapple with and as a result it gains little attention in these countries. The irony is that developing countries have the majority of the world’s neglected disabled persons so they probably need to consider the implementation of Universal Design practices much more than the developed countries.

Universal Design differs from Accessible Design in three main ways. Accessible design has a special attention for people with disabilities who have been viewed as being different from the non-disabled population therefore requiring buildings and products that are designed differently from those produced through the routine design process. Universal Design cares for everyone including people with disabilities and promotes accessibility on a broader scale than the conventional approaches to accessibility.

The aim of Universal Design extends far beyond the issues of mere accessibility of buildings. Inclusion is the most distinguishing factor that sets it apart from accessible design. Accessible design has the tendency to create separate facilities, environments and products for people with disabilities. Besides these limitations and constraints of special facilities are that they are too expensive, usually hard to use and the objection of the users as they cause stigmatization. Accessible design lacks an emphasis on social inclusion and does not go beyond building code requirements. Accessible design is more concerned with removing barriers in the built environment in compliance with building codes rather than attending to being equitable.

Universal Design intends to meet the needs of people with diverse abilities that change throughout their lives. This means that a young child will be able to access and maneuver in the environment as well as a tall, healthy, able-bodied standing adult. At the other end of the spectrum, an elderly frail person who might be restricted to a wheelchair will also live comfortably in the same environment. The universal design concept does not introduce complex, out of the ordinary features into a design but it is about carefully selecting a building product or feature, placing it differently or omitting it all together in order to create environments that is accessible and can adapt to a variety of users.

Good universal design is invisible, hidden or blended into the aesthetic of the design. The clever designer can find ways to make the necessary physical elements of universal design contribute to the theme of the design rather than looking like bolted on after thoughts. Universal Design improves the meaning of the term usability under the accessibility concept which considers wheelchair users as the most important accessible standard to include a wide range of human dimensions depending on a variety of functions. Universal Design acknowledges the unnecessity and inefficiency of specialized design. This emphasis on design for all rather than specialized design leads Universal Design to be misconstrued as an approach that disregards an individual’s particular need. In theory, UD makes an intensive emphasis on the significance of a design process that will achieve value based ends such as social inclusion, equity, equitable use and equal chances of participation.

While accessible design requirements are specified by codes and standards relating to specific group of people and to some particular buildings, the universal design concept targets people of all ages, sizes and abilities and is applied to all buildings. Universal design applications in developed countries center around improving the physical environment therefore certain aspects experienced in developing countries as absent in the process. In developing countries these applications are affected by more than just their disabilities in their physical environment. A social, sociopolitical, economic and cultural aspect compounds their experiences in said physical environment.

These economic, social and cultural realities of developing countries such as Kenya affect Universal Design in the following ways; the pervasiveness of oppressing sociopolitical and economic realities such as poverty, population pressures, ignorance, illiteracy and lack of infrastructure calls for Universal Design solutions vastly different than those in the developed world. These realities make implementation of universal design extremely difficult in comparison to the developed world. Since success breeds success and failure breeds failure the very weaknesses mentioned above breed more problems for the disabled by compounding their impairments.

A major driving force for Universal Design in developing countries is the need to use local materials and resources to develop products, services and jobs that are sustainable and help the local community to develop economically and educationally. However, they utilize foreign technical assistance yet they have a surplus of unemployed source of human resource, mismanaged economic resources and misused natural resources. Furthermore, the foreign technical assistance usually proves to be unsustainable and eventually unaffordable.

Universal Design offers solutions that solve more than one problem at a time therefore addressing cost effectiveness and human needs at the same time. Consultations with a variety of potential users are crucial in order to maximize usability of public facilities, as these people are the most knowledgeable about their own needs. In this process, it is helpful to educate designers, builders and citizens about the purpose and benefits of universal design for the whole community so that they understand its value and work to find good solutions to the problems.

Participation of local stakeholders is also critical for cost effective universal design because it helps identify locally available products and construction techniques and also to ensure that such facilities are maintained by local communities afterwards. When buildings are inaccessible, the human cost of having people to provide assistance would be greater. Furthermore, cost of inaccessible infrastructure would be sharply increased by eliminating economic opportunity for a number of individuals. Physical barriers reduce the economic and social output of persons with disabilities and elders, and investments in the removal and prevention of architectural and design barriers are increasingly being justified on economic grounds.

The cost of not incorporating universal design could be particularly significant for some types of countries: i.e. countries affected by conflicts or natural disasters may have a high prevalence of impairments and disability. Failing to incorporate these people into economic, social, political and cultural activities will guarantee a cycle of poverty for survivors and their families, and prevent vigorous economic and social development in the long run. Universal design of buildings will make them easier to maintain because the buildings will have fewer stairs, wider door openings, less obstacles to circulation and more durable walking surfaces, improved lighting and elimination of hazards will lead to fewer accidents.

In conclusion, there are clear benefits for all users and controversies about cost will give way to creative problem solving and providing the best environment possible for all users.

The Robson Square in Vancouver, Canada. Universal design
Robson Square in Vancouver is a perfect example for the application of universal design principles.

The author, Aliela Muyembe, is a graduate architect.


  1. A good piece! As an educator, I am quite passionate about universal design in learning environments. Let’s keep the conversation going! Dr. Agnes W. Wanjau

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