Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Accessibility
First, it’s helpful to discuss a few terms as they apply to design. “Universal design,” “inclusive design,” and “accessibility” are terms that are closely related and are often intertwined.
Accessibility is an attribute that pertains to an ability to access. It often means taking a preexisting structure that works for nondisabled people and designing an accommodation for disabled and Deaf people.
Universal design is “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
Inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.”
In some parts of the world, the term “inclusive design” is used interchangeably with universal design. But the basic distinction between the two methodologies is that universal design tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach while inclusive design recognizes that one size fits some, but not all. Inclusive design is not about designing one solution but considering a diversity of solutions. However, inclusive design can incorporate universal design and aims to be accessible. For someone with a design challenge, even just shifting from using the word “universal” to using “inclusive” helps them to think more about being responsive to human differences rather than searching for that one perfect solution.
The basic distinction between the two methodologies is that universal design tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach while inclusive design recognizes that one size fits some, but not all.
In order for theatremakers to effectively use inclusive design, it’s necessary to understand the basics of universal design. Universal design is most commonly associated with the built environment and products. Nevertheless, it provides a useful foundation for considering how a design is going to be used. Universal design is based on seven principles:
- Equitable use
- Flexibility in use
- Simple, intuitive use
- Perceptible information
- Tolerance for error
- Low physical effort
- Size and space for approach and use
These principles can be applied to various fields. For example, when universal design is applied to education, the results are multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Principles one and two come up with “multiple means of engagement”—this might mean there are multiple options for completing assignments, flexible learning environments, and text materials in both digital and audio format. In theatre, this could mean programming that includes virtual and in-person events and podcasts with written transcripts.
Inclusive Design for a More Inclusive Organization
By drawing from the above principles and considering the full range of human diversity, inclusive design can be used to redesign organizations. It leads to intuitive strategies that can create a more welcoming environment.
For any design project, an inclusive design approach must begin by examining the design team to ensure diversity is represented. It’s difficult to design inclusive solutions without the input of diverse participants. Applying that to redesigning organizations means examining the people within the organization. Start by asking the question: Are people with disabilities, people from different racial and ethnic groups, men and women, young and old people, and other groups represented throughout the organization in numbers proportional to the community? This include staff, artists, production team, board of directors, and anyone else involved in the organization. If an organization isn’t diverse, the first step is to hire the people who will bring this necessary diversity.
Another question that’s important to ask is: Is diversity represented on the marketing materials, the website, and in the audiences who attend performances? People tend to feel more welcome in environments where they can see people who are like them, either in the audience or involved with the organization. As a disabled artist, I’m not interested in collaborating with an organization that hasn’t bothered to create a space where someone like me feels welcome. When I go to a performance and don’t see any disabled people in the audience or involved with the production, I feel out of place and start to wonder about the organization. Do they have an ableist workplace? Have they not made an effort to be accessible? An organization that values inclusion should be visibly inclusive.
When I go to a performance and don’t see any disabled people in the audience or involved with the production, I feel out of place and start to wonder about the organization. Do they have an ableist workplace? Have they not made an effort to be accessible?
Websites are increasingly receiving more scrutiny as an indication of inclusivity. The Department of Justice has long considered websites to be a digital extension of an entity’s physical property and, therefore, covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For this reason, websites should already be accessible (here’s a great article to start with). The next step beyond the minimum requirements is to evaluate the website using the principles of universal design (here’s another great article). Applying principle four from above, information about accessibility should be posted in an easy-to-find location. A “know before you go” page is always a helpful way to provide accessibility information before a person travels to a building or site. As always, images should reflect the diversity within the organization.
Operational policies and procedures should be designed to ensure equitable access for people with disabilities, as well as for other groups. This includes providing printed materials in alternative formats to provide effective communication for patrons and artists. Information for patrons should be simple and easy to understand (principles three and four). Services, events, and activities should be accessible and usable by all to allow full participation. Staff members and volunteers who will interact with patrons need to be familiar with the availability of alternative materials. They also need to know how to respond to requests for accommodations and know how to respectfully communicate with people of different backgrounds, ages, and people with disabilities.
There are many more avenues to explore, such as strategic planning, questioning inequitable power dynamics, experimenting with different leadership models, and examining structures. Accessibility must be part of all those conversations. Inclusion and accessibility must not be treated as separate issues that can be addressed at different times. When a diverse staff that includes people with disabilities is involved in decision-making and the work of redesigning organizations, they can ensure that accessibility is included.