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Universal Design is for all ages and abilities

By Ed Engel, Snotrac Mobility Justice Advocate

This past summer I spent some time in Japan with my grandpa who lives alone on the second floor of an apartment complex. Nearly every other day during a two week span, I would help him grocery shop, holding his bags to and from the apartment. The first real explicit hurdle was the stairs to the second floor. Being an older, smaller complex, the stairs are the only way up to the second floor. My grandpa suffers from knee problems so climbing up and down the stairs, especially with grocery bags, is often a struggle. Even for me, someone who is young and able-bodied, walking up the stairs with several grocery bags is not particularly an easy task.

And then there are other impediments along the path to and from the grocery store. My grandpa either takes a bus or taxi to get to the store; the walking distance from the stops can pose a challenge. However, not as often considered, are the distances from the curb to get onto the modes of transportation. The height differentials also make it incredibly difficult for those with knee problems to get on vehicles.

While these examples are from Japan, the impediments to mobility are applicable across the world. Our built environments have centered around those that are able-bodied and later specific accommodations are made depending on one’s inability to use a system. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a legal foundation so public facilities and services are accessible to people with disabilities.

But what if we designed our built environment in ways that allowed for anyone to use them regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability?

This is where the concept of Universal Design comes into play. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University defines Universal Design as, “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.” Universal Design seeks to reinvent our environment so that it inherently considers and meets the needs of all people.

Using Universal Design principles will not fully eliminate the need for specific accommodations. There will always be a need for specific accommodations to address impediments with the built environment. However, the goal of Universal Design is to maximize the accessibility and mobility for all users, thus minimizing the need for specific accommodations.

A common misconception amongst those first encountering Universal Design is that it is a simplification of our built environment so that we better accommodate those with disabilities. While simplifying some design choices can certainly make them universal, Universal Design seeks to go beyond the status quo for everyone.

An example of Universal Design feature—which is often taken for granted—are easily accessible and abundant elevators. At a first glance elevators may seem designed specifically for people with disabilities, but they are also perfectly suited for those who are able-bodied. As an efficient mode of transportation, elevators allow for easier carrying of heavy objects between floors, and they would most certainly help with carrying grocery bags.

Unfortunately, many transit stations and buildings across the US suffer from a combination of broken elevators or a lack of any implementation. This lack of prioritization highlights the lack of Universal Design thinking when it comes to addressing mobility needs. While Universal Design is ambitious in nature, the simple incorporation of things like sidewalk curb cuts can go a long way in creating spaces that we can all inhabit.

On April 19 & 20, join the Snohomish County Transportation Coalition (Snotrac), Snohomish County Human Services, Disability Mobility Initiative, and Homage Senior Services, as we co-host a Universal Design Forum. Primarily targeted towards public works, transit, land use agency staff and similar professions, learn how Universal Design can be applied to better our streets, transportation, and communities.

At the end of the forum, we will hold a round robin of 10-minute presentations by local public works and transit agencies on their ADA Transition Plans and how they are implementing them. If you would like to present, let us know when you register or contact Ed Engel (

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