Design for All and Universal Design: two ways to Accessibility.

A little bit of history*

Design for All and Universal design started to consider accessibility from the design and architectural point of view giving an important contribution to the reflection on the meaning of accessibility. These two currents developed almost at the same time in Europe and the USA.

The Design for All (DfA) developed in early 60s in the Scandinavian countries under the influence of Scandinavian functionalism and ergonomics, as for design and architectural influences, and from the welfare policies developed in Sweden in favour of a “society for all” that «adopts the principle of universalism as the prevailing reference in the planning of social policies, aiming at the protection of everybody, without discriminations, according to the individual needs» (Vogliotti, Vattari, 2014, p. 20).

In 1993, the movement founded the EIDD (European Institute for Design and Disability) and, during the annual meeting held in Stockholm on 9 May 2004, they approved the declaration entitled “Good design enables, bad design disables”.

This declaration identifies what is the DfA, «the design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality», which is an ethical and creative challenge that does not concern designers only, but all those having the possibility of making choices on a project, goals and operational methods, starting from an innovative and holistic approach, aimed at facilitating the equal opportunities to take part in every aspect of the society. This goal is achieved through a design that takes place in a complex world where human diversities coexist on the principle of inclusion.

They say that the world (physical world), created by the man for the man, must be built to be inclusive. This aspect is linked to the ICF – International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (WHO, 2001), which sees the environment as a factor that affects whether a person is in a disability situation or not. The environment is facilitating when it allows access and participation and it becomes a barrier when it prevents access causing a disability situation, hindering the participation and eliminating the principle of equal opportunities.

It starts from the awareness of the diversity that characterizes human beings, to find, in the inclusive design, a possible equity that puts people in a position to be present in all spheres of society with the most appropriate manners for their own uniqueness. The same declaration states that to achieve the purpose, each product resulting from a design, which will involve the final users, must be accessible, easy to use and satisfy the evolution of human diversity (EIDD, 2004).

According to the DfA, a product, service or environment will be accessible if they meet the following criteria (Aragall, 2003, pp. 20-21):

1. Respectful.

2. Safe

3. Healthy

4. Functional

5. Understandable

6. Aesthetic

The Universal Design was founded in the United States affected by demographic, social, legislative and economic changes experienced from the 40s. In the 50s, also thanks to the veteran associations, they started the movement for the removal of architectural barriers (Barrier – Free), and in 1961, the American Standard Association published “A 117.1 – Making Buildings Accessible to and Usable by the Physically Handicapped”.

The following years experienced considerable social changes and objections, leading to the issuing of more specific regulations concerning both architectural aspects and aspects related to the rights of disabled people, such as the “Education of All Handicapped Children Act” (Public Law 94-142 of 1975), which aimed at ensuring a public, free and appropriate education to all handicapped boys and girls. It is a period of great social unrest and movements against racial discrimination that shook the country; so, the social consciousness changed in the face of diversity.

In 1995, the University of North Carolina founded The Center for Universal Design, under the leadership of Ronald L. Mace, who founded the movement Universal Design in 1985 to refer to «The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design » (The Center for Universal Design, 1997). This planning refers to environments, products and communications, which must be used by the most people; this approach reduces adaptations and their relevant costs and is addressed to the whole population.

The principles that guide the Universal Design can be applied to the assessment of existing environments and products and the planning of new ones (Story, Mueller and Mace, 1998, pp. 32-5; The Center for Universal Design, 1997):

1. Equitable use

2. Flexible use

3. Simple and intuitive use

4. Perceptible information

5. Error tolerance

6. Low physical effort

7. Size and space for approach and use.


  • Aragall F. (2003). European concept for accessibility. Technical assistance manual, Eucan, Luxembourg
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  • EIDD. (2004). Good design enables, bad design disables ( )
  • Story M., Mueller J., Mace R. (1998). The Universal Design File: Designing for People of All Ages and Abilities. Raleigh: North Carolina State University – The Center of Universal Design.
  • The Center for Universal Design. (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh: North Carolina State University – The Center of Universal Design.
  • Vogliotti S. & Vattari S. (2014). Welfare state, Parte 1, Modelli di welfare state in Europa. Bolzano: IPL ( )
  • WHO. (2001). ICF. International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. ( )

* From: Sánchez Utgé, M. (2016). Universal design and education for all: a look to Spain. In L. de Anna. Teaching accessibility and inclusion. Roma: Carocci, p. 30-42.

AuthorsMarta Sánchez UtgéUniversity Foro Italico #InnovaLab