India Uncut

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Universal design

Everyday life can be hell for disabled people, and a big reason for that is design: most things are designed to be used by people without disabilities. And often, in my non-disabled experience, any concession made to them actually makes them feel more segregated, as if they are freaks or suchlike.

That's why it is so heartening to read about universal design. The New York Times explains it thus:
While building codes set a minimum standard regarding accessibility, universal design is a relatively new concept that seeks to go beyond those codes to make the built environment usable by all people without the need for adaptation. This might include kitchen islands with adjustable-height countertops, front-loading washers and dryers, roll-in showers, and no-step entrances, eliminating the need for ramps.

But the important point, according to universal design advocates, is that it looks and feels like a normal apartment building. Rather than relying on designs that can segregate people according to their disability (impaired vision versus low mobility, for example), the intent of universal design is to create products and environments usable by as many people as possible, including people with no disabilities at all.
In other words, what seems like just normal design elements to you and me will be functionally useful to people with different kinds of disability. An example:
For instance, at 6 North, what looks like interior decoration is actually intentionally contrasting colors to allow people with limited vision to navigate the space. In the hallways, carpeting in front of apartment entrances is darker to signal the door’s location. Next to each entryway is a small shelf, which looks like a nice design detail but is also a handy spot for people to put down mail or packages while they open the door. This is, of course, equally convenient for a parent carrying a baby or people with partial paralysis.
What I find especially attractive about universal design is that it need not cost any more than normal design. Nevertheless, I'm not too optimistic about it catching on in India anytime soon. We are notoriously callous about the disabled people in our midst, as this old feature by Annie Zaidi demonstrates.
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